Coal miners around the globe are facing increasing pressure to feed emerging markets’ energy demands, and combined with widely diverging regulations internationally and the low cost of compensating accident victims in poor countries, disasters are taking place like this week’s Turkish mine explosion that’s killed more than 200 miners.
The death toll in Turkey is still rising, with hundreds believed to be trapped underground, and will likely be the country’s deadliest mining disaster, despite safety "measures taken as part of the highest and most sustained inspection process,” the mine’s owner said in a statement.
Several nations are making efforts to tighten controls and reduce the unavoidably dangerous industry, but they are still struggling with the lingering issues related to former practices and modern efforts to cut costs and boost production.
“Successful efforts are mostly concentrated in more developed countries, such as those in Europe. As such, it would take some time for these ideas and initiatives to take root in developing Asian countries and for these initiatives to accommodate to the varying circumstances specific to Asia,” according to a report from the Center for Non-Traditional Security Studies.
Poor working conditions in coal-producing countries like China, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia and Colombia have made coal mining responsible for more deaths than any other industrial sector.
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Even in the U.S., slack safety issues are a recurring problem. The mine that collapsed in West Virginia had “chronic compliance issues” and several citations from inspectors.
Though it’s dangerous to mine and is a major polluter, coal supports 40 percent of the world’s electricity, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In the developing world, coal production is increasing, as coal-fired power plants are relatively cheap to build.
Utilities in Japan and Germany, which have cut back coal production, are now returning to it in part to replace nuclear generation deemed too dangerous following Japan’s Fukushima plant disaster.
In the U.S, coal production has increased 62 percent since 1970, while deaths have decreased by 92 percent, according to the National Mining Association, a trade group. Since 2011, coal production in the U.S. has been decreasing slightly, due to the availability of cheap and cleaner-burning natural gas and federal pollution-control regulations.
“I do not believe that U.S. miners are systematically cutting corners on safety” because the “downside is too great,” Lucas Pipes, managing director of equity research for Brean Capital, said.
Jerald Fletcher, director of the National Resource Analysis Center (NRAC), agrees. “It doesn’t matter which companies you go to, every one of their meetings start with safety,” he said. “That’s partly because of shareholder pressure but partly because of economics-- it’s very expensive to have people get hurt," he said.
That sentiment is reflected in a recent study from Ventyx showing that international mining executives are focusing on the problem. According to that poll, worker safety is a higher priority than maximizing production.
"Our research shows the mining industry remains cautious about the strength of global economic recovery. In response, many mining organizations have begun looking inward, especially in regard to the labor market. In doing so, they have shifted their focus from finding qualified workers anywhere, at any cost, to ensuring the workforce they currently have is efficient, well-informed and safe," Bas Mutsaers, senior vice president of Mining Industry Solutions at Ventyx, wrote in the report completed in 2012.
In the developing world, China has greatly improved its mining safety in recent years, Fletcher said.
Still, accidents happen, particularly in developing countries, where the cheap source of energy can spur economic development and is growing in demand.
Turkish mines were responsible for 164 deaths from 1994 to 2003, according to the Oxford Journal for Occupational Medicine. In 1992, 263 miners died in a gas explosion in Zonguldak.
Energy demand in Turkey is poised to grow the fastest among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. IEA forecasts that Turkey’s energy use will double over the next decade.
Delays in new legislation in less developed countries also has a direct impact on mine safety.
According to the Center for Nontraditional Security Studies, miners themselves resisted the closure of several mines in China in the late 1990s because there were no legal ways for the miners to seek damages for death or injuries and no way to be sure of finding other employment.
“For instance, in China, the compensation for injury and death at the workplace which was set in 1996 is too low to support affected miners and their families. In Indonesia, statutes and regulations which have been codified are not implemented effectively,with a significant time lag between when laws are made at the national level and when they are translated into action at the provincial and local levels,” the Center’s report said.
Weak national authority also plagues the mining industry in many parts of the developing world. and corrupt local authorities often maintain the lion’s share of real power and negate central governments’ attempts to protect workers.
“The irony is that while the process of decentralisation in Indonesia since 2001 provided a means of forcing mining companies to engage directly with local communities through consultations with and through local governments, it would not be surprising to see local governments not taking account of the communities’ interests (Cesare and Maxwell, 2003:49). Instances of corruption are still rampant, as observed in Kalimantan,where a recent report by JATAM (an Indonesian network of workers’ rights advocacy groups) identified local government officials who are said to be corrupt,” the Center for Non-Traditional Security Studies report concluded.