The Soma mine disaster, or the dark side of Turkey

The safety of a mine depends on several factors: whether it is old or new, underground or open pit and if it is underground, how deep and long and finally on the type of ore. In coal mines such as that of Soma in Turkey, namely underground and several kilometers deep, the risks are bigger. The main causes of an accident, if not disasters, are the leakage of methane gas what centuries ago was called firedamp which when has approximately reached 5-15% of the air becomes a powerful explosive coal dust, which when in excess becomes very flammable and the collapse of the walls. The fires that break out from the blast of methane or the combustion of coal dust both generate carbon monoxide, whose inhalation is the leading cause of mortality in coal mines.

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These elements of risk are reduced and prevented with appropriate exhaust ventilation and dust suppression with water spray, suitable equipment for the monitoring of explosive gases and dust, fortifications of tunnels with steel rods, closure of cracks in the rock with special resins to reduce gas leaks, facilities for the evacuation of personnel, safe rooms with food and oxygen tanks, personal protective equipment (helmets, gas masks, gloves), as well as having always ready emergency response teams and hospitals able to accommodate the wounded and treat them according to their diagnosis. All activities that cost and that have a significant impact on the cost of production.

In the specific case of the Soma mine, two thousand meters deep and distant as many four thousand from the exit, we are clearly before an almost total absence of measures for site prevention and security, including maintenance of machinery and equipment, such as the short-circuited electrical transformer charged as the responsible for the disaster, which indeed cannot alone cause a fire of that size. And what about the gas masks, not only with an operating time of just 45 minutes compared to the 120 minutes requested in a normal country, but also manufactured in China in the distant 1993 and not inspected and replaced for years, in other terms, absolute unusable scrap, or even the total absence of security rooms, even not provided for by the Turkish safety standards.

However, all this is possible when the political and administrative structures are negligent, in other words, when corruption is widespread, as inspections of the Ministry of Labour are agreed and announced, instead of being carried out without warning, or performed only in first one-two hundred meters of the mine, or even rigged. Consider, for instance, the investigation of the parliamentary opposition party CHP on safety at Soma mine, which was rejected by the AKP, the party of the Turkish prime minister, or still, the wife of the owner of the mine, who is a regional director of Somas AKP, and that during the last election gave to the AKP in Soma bags of coal to be distributed for charities to poorest people to grab their votes.

Moreover, it is not a coincidence that Turkey is in Europe the country with the highest number of accidents in the workplace and the third in the world. If we look at the number of deaths per square meter of mine, Turkey is even the first in the world with 7.2% deaths per square meter, while China records a 1.27% and the United States a 0.04%.

It is to be noted that we could paradoxically speak of a catastrophe in compliance with the law, because Turkey has not ratified the International Convention on Safety and Health in Mines drawn up by the International Labour Organization (ILO), of which Turkey is a member, convention that Ankaras government signed back in 1998.

What working conditions

In all countries where the only competitive advantage is the cost of production, profit is the top priority at the expense of peoples lives, which generally has little value. Let us remember that the mines are usually located underneath the earths surface and positioned in remote areas, far from cities and therefore ignored, unbeknown to them, by the public opinion.

To keep costs of production low, expenses on injury prevention and safety are cut, working hours get longer, 10-14 days in a row with shuft so twelve hours, whose irregularities are hidden under the term of flexibility, when it is proved since decades that instead the productivity decreases and the risk of accidents increases, little or no training, workers in subcontracting of second and third grade, unskilled, irregulars or minors, scarce fortifications of galleries, for example reinforcements in wood instead of steel, steep and narrow tunnels from which it is difficult to escape, heat, noise, darkness, humidity, often with the tacit consent of a weak union. The owner of the Soma mine boasted of having reduced the cost of production from $140 to $23.80 per ton, that is a reduction by almost seven times, pity that nobody asked him how he did it. To export a ton of coal from Turkey, including shipping costs, costs twenty dollars, while the same quality costs eighty dollars from Wales.

Beyond the news report, we should ask why this event takes us to the belly, which cords touch such a tragedy in the twenty-first century, why we are so affected when we see those smeared faces, those calloused hands spattered with mud and coal. Today we tend to think that the work has been dematerialized, it all boils down to the use of a computer, when in fact there are still tens of thousands of people who extract coal in the depths of the earth, who die buried alive under thousands of meters underground, people whose working conditions have not improved since the days of savage capitalism of the nineteenth century.

And all this in Turkey, a country of which we are used to seeing, and also to attending the beautiful coasts of the Aegean, to reading the double-digit growth of national wealth China around the corner, as a retired Italian banker loved to repeat until few years ago up to stand in a single decade to the sixteenth place in the ranking of the richest countries in the world.

Yet, the statement of the Turkish prime minister, now as in nineteenth-century deaths in the mine have always happened, is chilling because it means saying that the working conditions of the Turkish miners are the same of the British miners two hundred years ago in a country that aspires to fully join the European Union, the home of rights.

Which the other countries at risk

Disasters like those of Soma can happen in any country, developed and emerging. China has the largest absolute number of deaths, one thousand only in 2013, but this is mainly due to the high number of illegal and unauthorized mines. Let us remember that a few years ago, in 2010, twenty-nine people died in a coal mine in Virginia, USA, due to an explosion caused by a leakage of methane gas.

In addition to China and Turkey, the countries that are most at risk are India, South Africa, Russia, Indonesia, without neglecting developed countries such as Germany, Poland, and Australia. However, the real loose cannon is Ukraine, with it's many illegal mines, considered among the most dangerous in the world, and whose political uncertainty can only increase the chances of a disaster.

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Posted in Health and Medical Post Date 04/20/2019






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