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Developing countries’ miners face “substantial risk inequality”

Coal miners in developing countries can be exposed to health and safety risks more regularly than those working in advanced economies

“Our miners have worked with water over their heads…but the management pushed us to carry on” (Indian miners’ representative, quoted in report)

Coal miners in developing countries can be exposed to health and safety risks more regularly than those working in advanced economies, new research findings reveal today (Wednesday 31 October).

Researchers from Cardiff University, funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), felt that a lack of resources in the mines they visited in India, for example, “impacted strongly” on the “substantial inequality in their risk profiles”.

Among those risks are those posed by fire and explosions, flooding, rock falls and outbursts of poisonous gas, all of which can cause serious injury and death.

The researchers set out to examine how workers are represented on health and safety issues in countries with differing economic profiles. As well as India, they examined mines in Indonesia, Australia, Canada and South Africa.

They found that while the risks are ubiquitous to mining globally, “they are not experienced equally in all countries”.

As well as the lack of resources, other contributing factors to this inequality include mining techniques, age and depth of mines and geological challenges.

The study found that workers have the potential to significantly contribute to improved health and safety in coal mines in all the countries studied, but this was far more developed in some countries than others.

The researchers said there is a “strong need” for more employer and state commitment towards worker representation and global standards to better protect miners.

In Australia, the researchers noted that mineworkers were able to make effective representations to management on health and safety matters and could stop dangerous work without fear of reprisal. There is a similar story in Canada and South Africa, though to a more limited extent.

This is not the case in India and Indonesia. The researchers said that worker representation is restricted in many ways by mine management.

One representative in India is quoted in the report as saying: “Our miners have worked with water over their heads (in the upper compartment), something no one should have to because it is clearly unsafe. But the management pushed us to carry on as that got their high yield in a short span of time.”

The researchers concluded: “[There is] a strong need for greater levels of commitment and support for representation from the state and its agencies in these countries in order for it to stand some chance of success. There may be a role for global actors and standards to be more persuasive at this level.”

The findings also highlight an issue of resourcing for labour inspections in developing countries, as well as the capacity and competency for existing inspectors.

Richard Jones, IOSH’s Head of Policy and Public Affairs, said it is crucial more steps are taken for greater competence development and worker involvement.

He said: “This research supports the principle that effective worker involvement can help bring health and safety improvement. But, importantly, this doesn’t happen in isolation. It needs effective regulation and management commitment, together with access to good training and protection of contractors.

“The study also underlines the potential of international standards in helping transcend national and economic boundaries for health and safety.

“As well as highlighting these important issues, this IOSH-funded research provides useful insight in the shape of national case studies. These can potentially assist both governments and organisations in improving health and safety management in the operation of coal mines in countries around the world.”

The International Labour Organization estimates that although mining only accounts for one percent of the global workforce, it is responsible for about eight per cent of fatal accidents at work. It doesn’t break these figures down by country, while the researchers highlighted an issue of under-reporting in some countries.

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IOSH is the Chartered body for health and safety professionals. With more than 47,000 members in over 130 countries, we’re the world’s biggest professional health and safety organisation.