In Colombia’s coal mines, troubling health and safety risks combined with serious environmental and social justice issues create conditions reminiscent of mining in the early 20th century in the United States. The dangers mine workers—and local communities—face are real and frightening, say four mining safety and health experts from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

The UMWA experts recently returned from a union exchange to Colombia. They were: Ron Airhart, executive assistant to Secretary-Treasurer Daniel Kane; Tim Baker, assistant to the secretary-treasurer; Ron Bowersox, international safety inspector; and Dale Lydic, president of UMWA Local 2193 in Clymer, PA. In Colombia, they met with their union counterparts, conducted site visits, and held discussions with local community groups and government officials.

“Coal mines are what ours would have been in the 1920s,” said Airhart. “There are no safety standards. There are no mining laws.” Consequently, he explained, mine inspection systems are all but non-existent.

The most obvious health and safety risks for mine workers, UMWA exchange participants said, were exhaustion, spinal fatigue, and lack of dust control. Spinal injuries are common. Long shifts added to multi-hour commutes on rough rural roads cause many mine workers—especially heavy equipment operators—to suffer spinal breakdown.

“You put 20 hours on that backbone up and down with no rest, and you have a lot of spinal injuries,” said Airhart.

Worker exhaustion is of particular concern as fatigue is a known risk factor in workplace accidents and fatalities.

Participants reported that in Colombia, underground and strip coal mines are mostly in remote areas, cordoned off with razor wire and heavily guarded. Workers are not allowed to live inside mine compounds and are transported by bus to and from far-off villages. At the Cerrajón open-pit coal mine, for example, many workers combine a 12-hour shift with an eight- to 10-hour roundtrip bus commute to their villages. With only four to five hours’ rest at home, workers are exhausted.

Cerrajón—which UMWA representatives visited—is considered one of the best mines in the country in terms of hours, wages, and conditions. However, the distinction between mine worker and management is stark. Company personnel live inside a guarded compound and are provided with schools, homes, swimming pools, and a golf course. Workers have no access to company amenities.

Union members said their employer’s response to worker exhaustion is to use technology rather than cut shift hours. This company plans to install lasers to flash into heavy-equipment operators’ eyes when slowed blinking is detected.

Measures to monitor and prevent dust inhalation at open-pit coal mines were observed to be absent or inadequate. UMWA participants said that the levels of dust they personally observed at one large-scale strip mine would cause most workers to develop breathing issues and likely a high percentage of workers would develop black lung disease.

Working for Change

The Colombian union federations Sintramienergética and Sintracarbón represent nearly 10,000 workers in Colombia`s coal mines. Both labor federations are struggling to push reluctant employers to adopt better safety standards and practices, as well as to educate and empower their own members to demand better working conditions.

Members of Sintracarbón told the visiting UMWA representatives that inspections do not always clear up problems. Mine inspectors make site visits by invitation only and are ordered off mine property regularly. Meanwhile, many Colombian mine inspectors are attorneys with knowledge of labor laws but no background in mining.

“My son is an attorney,” said Baker, who visited Colombia in 2008 as part of the same exchange program, “but I sure don’t want him inspecting any of the mines I go into.”

Sintracarbón members reported a few improvements at the Cerrajón mine, many in response to requests following a 2010 exchange in which six Colombian union members attended a program at the Mine Safety and Health Administration Academy in Beckley, West Virginia. Recently Cerrajón hired one resident doctor. In addition, Sintracarbón convinced management to relocate 367 injured workers to light-duty positions while recovering from injuries.

While improvements are welcome, the absence of regulations and third-party enforcement means the changes are not binding.

Data collection on mine health and safety is inadequate. According to a staff member visited by UMWA exchange participants, the Colombian government does not know how many mines operate in the country and so does not collect data on injury rates or deaths in the mining industry.

The ability of Colombian mining unions to negotiate health and safety measures with management is undercut by the fact that large mine operators are replacing permanent workers with contract workers. Contract workers have no work security, no training, no workplace rights, and no collective representation. At Cerrajón, for example, only 4,600 of 11,000 workers are permanent workers.

An Uphill Battle

Apart from health and safety concerns, UMWA participants reported serious environmental and social justice issues.

Community groups reported to UMWA visitors that a multinational mine operator plans to relocate 18 miles of river to access 500 million tons of recoverable coal under their villages. Villagers are afraid of losing their land, livelihoods, and access to clean drinking water.

“We met with seven different community groups, and they told us stories that would just break your heart,” said Airhart. “The coal operators came in the middle of the night, took their village, and just moved the whole town.

The scale and extent of strip coal mining projects in Colombia surprised the UMWA participants, especially given that there are apparently no enforceable requirements for mining companies to return the land to its original condition, they said.

Strip coal mining is trending upward in Colombia. Cerrajón, which currently produces 34 million tons of coal per year, plans to increase production to 60 million tons a year by 2014, according to mine management.

Baker was struck by the difference between coal mining in the United States and in Colombia.

“You see these folks, and you realize that they have a long hard fight to go through,” Baker said. “And the shame of it is, is they’re going to have to fight the same hard fight we had to fight 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago.”

Several follow-up activities will result from the exchange. The UMWA’s medical expert on black lung disease and head of the Black Lung Association will contact Sintracarbón’s medical consultant to exchange information on the illness. UMWA’s administrator of occupational health and safety will research the new sensor devices to determine whether they will cause eye damage. Bowersox plans to provide Cerrejón’s safety director with information on personal dust monitoring devices. Finally, UMWA will work toward bringing more Sintracarbón union members to the Beckley Academy for mine safety training.

The exchange was implemented by the Solidarity Center with funding provided by the U.S. Department of State.

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