Dark. Dirty. Dangerous. These are the three dimensions of underground coal mining. This plain reality was driven home once again by the fatal explosion in a Siberian coal mine last weekend. At least 45 miners lost their lives at the Taizhina mine. The likely cause of the blast was methane gas, and a criminal investigation has begun into possible safety violations.
The Taizhina tragedy reminds us of the lost lives in Canadian coal mining disasters. On May 9, 1992, a build-up of methane and coal dust ignited at the Westray coal mine in Nova Scotia, killing 26 people, some of whom are entombed in the workings. A bump in the late afternoon of Oct. 23, 1958, at the mine at Springhill, Nova Scotia, killed 75 men. About 100 miners survived, but some were trapped in the deeps for as long as eight days.
There is risk in going underground, in hardrock or softrock mines. Fortunately, Canadian mine owners value the safety of their employees. As a nation we have developed many means of lessening the risks. We reinforce openings. We monitor ground movement. We control air movement. We train our miners and equipment operators to strict standards. We involve employees in identifying and resolving potentially hazardous situations. We have codified regulations and the means to enforce them.
Before we sit happily on our accomplishments, let us give a thought to poorer countries where coal mining remains extremely hazardous. How can we share our expertise with them and save lives?
First, any Canadian company that develops a mine offshore must, and I repeat MUST, build it to the same high safety and environmental standards applied in this country. The employer has a duty to educate its workforce, and to refresh and update that education at regular intervals.
So far it sounds as if many foreign miners would be well-off working in a Canadian-owned mine. True. But there are few Canadian-owned mines around the world compared with locally-owned foreign mines. For the majority of foreign mine workers, particularly in poor countries, safety is a matter of luck as much as anything.
Canadians can take action to improve workplace safety for these tens-of-thousands of miners. Here are a few suggestions, and our readers are encouraged to add to the list:
●A professor of rock mechanics might take a sabbatical in Russia to help establish a program of monitoring and ground control.
●With the support of his employer, a safety engineer might take a working holiday in China to help upgrade a coal mine’s methane control procedures.
●An underground mechanic might write procedures for safe handling of fuel and lubricants for an Indian mine.
●A Canadian company overseas might volunteer to train selected individuals from nearby mines that it does not own, thus spreading the safety message farther.
●Foreign mining students could be invited to Canadian mines to learn how to create a workable safety program.
The money to support such initiatives should come from mineral producers and the professional organizations they support. Call it "research", "business development" or "philanthropy". The health of individual miners and the popular perception of the industry could both be improved.