To cheers, chants and tears of joy, Florencio Avalos became the first of 33 trapped Chilean miners to escape his underground prison after a record time underground, as rescuers hauled him to the surface at 12:12 a.m. local time in a metal cage less than 22 inches across. By midday, authorities hope to have brought all of the miners out, ending what was supposed to be just a 10-hour shift digging for copper and gold.
It is the moment the world has awaited for more than two months, as the daily survival of 33 miners trapped underground – how they brush their teeth, what they eat, how they stay sane – has made almost non-stop, international news. And Mariela Gomez, aunt of Carlos Barrios, who was slated to come out 13th, couldn’t help but become emotional.
“I’m crying all the same,” Gomez said. After waiting 69 days – the first 17 of them “blind, anxious, I can’t even put words to it” – she was laughing with tears on her cheeks. “I haven’t been nervous in recent weeks but now, I am, a little,” she said.
Even with the excitement of the first rescues fresh in the air, some family members were looking toward the future.
“Hopefully no one ever again has to do anything like this,” said Alonso Contreras, a cousin of Barrios. “Never again.”
That’s the sentiment of mine safety experts worldwide who are hoping that the saga will become a lesson for the mining industry, in Chile, the region, and the rest of the world.
This rescue effort is believed to be the deepest ever and the survivors have been underground longer than anyone who has made it out alive. It’s also one of the most advanced of its kind, and it could help other countries and firms increase their standards moving forward, but first an analysis of what exactly went wrong will need to be undertaken, says Keith Slack, Senior Policy Advisor and Campaign Manager for Extractive Industries at Oxfam America.
“The situation illustrates the need for stronger regulations and enforcement of existing regulations in the mining sector across Latin America” and the globe, says Mr. Slack.
Dramatic safety improvements
Many mining experts point out that, while more hazardous than most jobs, mining safety has increased considerably over the decades. Today, they say, workers are more likely to be hit by a car on the way to work than killed while descending deep into the earth to extract iron ore, coal, and precious metals.
The mindset in the past was that “you might get killed,” says Michael Nelson, an associate professor and chair of mining and engineering at the University of Utah. “Fifty years ago, a guy died, and everyone said, ‘That´s too bad.’ And the company would send a check to the widow.”
But in the past ten years the mentality has shifted so much that no accident is acceptable, he says, reflecting changes in societal expectations, worker rights, and the very high costs of fatalities today, including settlements and wrongful death lawsuits.
The chance of survival in the wake of a tragedy has also increased. Rescues in a coal mine in Shanxi, China this year, in a gold mine in the Philippines in 2008, and in 2002, in Pennsylvania´s Quecreek Mine, are all examples that have provided lessons for the industry.
Often the standards for safety and emergency response depend on the employer. For the largest companies in the world, safety standards are high. For the smaller and medium-sized companies, such as at the San Jose mine, the standards are not always up to par.
“Safety standards vary greatly in mining,” says John Tilton, research professor at the Colorado School of Mines. “The large multinational mining companies have very high standards. Small and medium-sized mines often do not have the economics that allow them that luxury.”
This accident, says Slack, who just returned from a visit to Peru, is putting pressure on those smaller operations to increase standards. “I think that there is a sense, in a country like Peru [for example], that there is a need to strengthen government capacity to deal with mine-related problems,” he says. “This Chile situation helps emphasize that even more.”
Mining is biggest in a handful of countries today, such as Australia, the US, Canada, South Africa, and Chile, the largest copper producer in the world. There is also large production in India, China, and Russia, and hundreds of thousands of “artisanal” miners in every corner of the globe. Surface mining, which extracts materials such as sand, gravel, and iron ore, is far less dangerous than underground mining for precious metals, among other materials.
The job entails inherent risks anywhere it is done. For 2010, there have been 59 mine-related fatalities for the coal and metal/non-metal sectors in the US, including 29 killed in an accident in West Virginia in April.
Standards have increased greatly over the years, though. The number of deaths in the US stood at 3,242 in 1907 compared to 18 in 2009, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
In Chile, the number of incapacitating injuries per million work hours fell from 33 in 1989 to 4 last year, according to the country’s mining regulator.
Mr. Nelson says that in the US, standards are still not high enough at smaller outfits that may include as few as three workers, and of them likely no safety engineer. His university is working on a project to develop safety training material for small mines of ten workers or fewer.
In many other countries, fatalities are much higher, including the coal-mining industry in China, says Mr. Tilton. According to Reuters, the official mining death toll in China last year was 2,631, down from some 7,000 in 2002. Many observers say globally death rates go unrecorded.