Turkish mining disaster: Counting the cost of a deadly industry

12,000 miners die in accidents each year, with thousands more suffering injury and illness, and China has the worst accident record

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 May, 2014, 9:23pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 8:30pm

The mine disaster in western Turkey is shining a spotlight on one the most hazardous jobs in the world.

Unions estimate that about 10 million people dig for a living and 12,000 may die every year from roof falls, explosions, fires, flooding and other underground and surface accidents.

Many thousands more may have their lives indirectly shortened by the perils of their work.

There is even less reliable data on injuries incurred by miners, but tens of thousands have their health damaged every year from conditions such as pneumoconiosis, hearing loss and the effects of vibration.

Most fatal mining accidents now occur in the "informal" sector, where poor people, mainly in developing countries, dig for gold or other minerals with few resources. Their deaths and injuries are seldom recorded, says the UN's International Labour Organisation.

"Worldwide, there are fewer accidents now in the formal sector than there were 10 years ago, but some countries still do not systematically record and report their performance.

"At the same time, the informal mining sector is still rife with accidents and health hazards", said Martin Hahn, the organisation's mining specialist.

China, which mines one third of the world's coal and employs nearly half the world's miners, has the worst accident record.

The Chinese government said 1,049 people died in mine accidents last year, a 24 per cent decrease on 2012 and a fraction of the 7,000 who died in 2003.

But human rights groups say the latest figures may be much higher due to under-reporting by unregulated mining companies.

IndustriALL, the Geneva-based union, which represents 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining and energy sectors, said Turkey is renowned for its coal mining accidents.

"In 73 years more than 3,000 miners have been killed in Turkey. Every death in a mine is avoidable," the union said.

Research from China and India suggests that mining is also indirectly responsible for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year. A 2011 study by a US air pollution expert suggested that emissions from coal plants in China were responsible for 250,000 deaths in 2011. A similar study of 111 major Indian coal power plants calculated they were responsible for between 80,000 and 120,000 premature deaths and 20 million new asthma cases in the country.

Both studies were commissioned by Greenpeace.

"Hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved, and millions of asthma attacks, heart attacks, hospitalisations, lost work days and associated costs to society could be avoided, with the use of cleaner fuels, stricter emission standards and the installation and use of the technologies required to achieve substantial reductions in these pollutants," said the report.