Fatal Explosion at Coahuila Mine Highlights Poor Safety Conditions for Workers

SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico, March 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Fatal Explosion at Coahuila Mine Highlights Poor Safety Conditions for Workers


A fatal explosion at a coal mine in Coahuila state has drawn attention to the poor safety conditions for workers in the Mexican mining industry, particularly in coal extraction. The incident, which occurred on Feb. 19 at the Unidad Pasta de Conchos mine near the community of San Juan de Sabinas, killed 65 miners who were trapped underground. The explosion sent temperatures above 600 degrees Celsius (1,100 Fahrenheit), enveloping the mine with lethal amounts of methane and carbon dioxide.

Rescue workers were still unable to retrieve the bodies of the workers almost two weeks after the explosion because conditions inside the mine remained very treacherous.

The mine is owned and operated by Industrial Minera Mexico (IMM), a subsidiary of the Mexican-based multinational company Grupo Mexico. The parent company's primary mining activity is copper extraction, with operations in Mexico, the US, and Peru.

Critics said IMM did little to ensure the safety of workers at Unidad Pasta de Conchos, failing to take obvious steps to prevent this type of accident.

Relatives of the victims said almost all the mine employees had complained of gas buildups and outdated equipment. A handful of miners who were not working at the time of the incident told reporters that they were often sent into dangerously unstable shafts without training or proper equipment.

"We heard that our trapped colleagues had devices that contained an oxygen chamber, but most of these were not working," one miner told the Mexico City daily newspaper La Cronica de Hoy. The miner said Grupo Mexico and General de Hulla, its partner in the mine project, were aware of problems, including some minor explosions in the mine, but took no action. "Here you have to make your own safety arrangements," said the miner, who asked to remain anonymous. "All these companies care about are that the coal is extracted and that they make money."

Grupo Mexico responded to the criticisms by noting that the Unidad Pasta de Conchos mine passed several recent inspections, including one on Feb. 7. A preliminary report by the Secretaria del Trabajo y Prevision Social (STPS) after the inspection said the company did not get a clean bill of health, with 34 areas of concern noted. The company had corrected 28 of those deficiencies but had failed to take action on six possibly serious violations related to electrification of the mine, said the Mexico City daily newspaper La Jornada, which obtained a copy of the report. "Relatives of the victims and workers at the mine have said that the explosion may have been caused by a failure in the internal electrical system," said the newspaper.

Miners call strike against mine owner Grupo Mexico

The accident at Unidad Pasta de Conchos prompted 4,000 unionized employees at other Grupo Mexico operations to walk off their jobs to demand that the company take steps to make operations safer at its IMM facilities. Among those striking were workers at IMM mines in San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, and Sonora states, including employees of the company's giant copper-extraction operations at La Caridad and Cananea. The striking workers are members of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Mineros, Metalurgicos y Similares de la Republica Mexicana (SNTMMSRM). Union officials said less than half of the miners who died at Unidad Pasta de Conchos were members of the union.

Leaders said the union has organized 12 strikes against IMM over the past four years to protest poor working conditions. "If we had to walk off the job every time we found a safety-related problem at an IMM facility, we would be perpetually on strike," said SNTMMSRM secretary-general Napoleon Gomez Urrutia. "None of its mines are safe.

The company has offered to pay 750,000 pesos (US$71,600) to the immediate family of each of the victims, but union officials say the amount is not enough. "They should ask for at least twice that amount," said Gomez Urrutia. …

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