Digging Deeper – Why is mining hazardous?

As the personal and community tragedy of the loss of 29 men’s lives at the Pike River mine continues, further details about the nature of mining are worth considering.

An initial point to emphasise is that Pike River is not an isolated incident. West Virginia lawyer Davitt McAteer (who heads an investigation of that state’s Upper Big Branch Mine tragedy, where 29 coalminers died on April 5 following a gas explosion) recently pointed out that:

The Pike River tragedy is the same story that has played out for the past 50 years, where somehow safety checks failed and miners died, he said.

‘‘Let this be the last time we do this. I’m tired of it,’’ he said, choking back tears.

Technology in the mining industry has come a long way and there was no reason people should continue to die. …

…‘You can’t suggest that the mining industry is going forward into the 21st century with the rate that it’s killing people. We know how to mine safely so why is this happening?’’

McAteer said he could not answer his own question …

The Press, 26 November, 2010 (News, A5)

Note that McAteer doesn’t ask ‘Why did this [Pike River tragedy] happen?’ His question is much broader – ‘Why is this [phenomenon of mining disasters still] happening?’

The Department of Labour produced a discussion document in 2008 called Improving Health and Safety Management in the Underground Mining Industry. A Press release at the time by then Labour Minister Trevor Mallard noted Damien O’Connor saying that:

“Miners work in dangerous situations and rely heavily on others when underground. The lessons of history have proven that unless we do our best to maintain the highest standards of safety possible, deaths will occur in this industry,”

In the same Press release Mallard claimed that mining was “a hazardous industry and has one of the highest workplace injury rates of all industries”.

Two and a half years later little had been done with that report. In fact, John Key reportedly claimed that:

“There needs to be an understanding of what’s gone wrong there,” said Key. “It’s a highly irregular event that has taken place.”

So, is underground mining a problem or is this just one of those rare and unfortunate events? It’s worth quoting a section from the introduction to the Department of Labour discussion document just cited:


There are an estimated four to six underground coal mines currently [April, 2008] operating in New Zealand, with around 300-350 employees. There are also three underground metalliferous mines currently operating.

Underground mining is an inherently hazardous industry with the potential for catastrophic incidents, as evidenced by recent fatalities. Good health and safety practices are crucial, as people’s lives depend on them.

On-site competency is essential, as the variety of engineering and geological hazards faced by workers in the underground mining industry distinguishes it from many other industries.

In the five-year period from 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2005, the Department of Labour received 51 notifications of serious harm to employees working in underground mines.

In 2006, the ACC incidence rate (claims per 1,000 FTEs) for mining was 165, with 1,000 claims. This includes both above-ground and underground mining. Only agriculture, forestry and fishing had a higher rate of 177, with 22,800 claims. In 2005, mining had the highest incidence rate of all industries with 198 ACC claims per 1,000 FTEs, with 1,100 claims. The injury and fatality rate of 0.9 per 1,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees has remained stable over the past 10 years.

Underground mining is one of the most hazardous occupations. Fifty one serious incidents of harm in five years out of a workforce population of between 300-350. That’s a one in six or seven chance of serious harm if you work in a mine for five years.

Despite that, believe it or not things were getting better. Appendix 2 to the Underground Mining Consultation Submissions Report profiles the industry at the time (2008) and outlines the history of multiple and single fatalities.

In the last 50 years, there were fewer fatalities per multiple fatality incident, suggesting major improvements to safety practices:

Date Fatalities Mine Yrs between fatalities
1958 4 Westhaven 3
1967 19 Strongman 9
1985 4 Boatmans 18
1998 3 Mt Davy 13

There are also high numbers of single fatalities. A 1995 seminar paper, A summary of the evolution of coal mining safety legislation, together with a traditional viewpoint (by WP Brazil, of the Francis Mining Company for the Coal Producers Federation of New Zealand Inc) noted the high number of miners who “met a solitary death”. Looking at total fatalities, there has been a marked drop in mining industry fatalities in latter years – a 41% drop in the 10 years before and after the HSE Act came into force. The following table shows how total mining fatalities have reduced by 80% in the last 50 years:

Period Fatalities
1957-1966 85
1967-1976 95 (includes 19 multiple fatalities, Strongman mine)
1977-1986 58
1987-1996 31
1997-2006 17

Once again, however, it needs emphasising that even at 17 deaths for a nine year period that is still out of a population of between 300-350 miners. If you worked down a mine for that length of time during the period of least fatalities you still had a 1 in 20 chance of dying over that period (admittedly much better than the one in ten chance of the previous decade).

So why is mining is one of the most hazardous occupations, rivaling and sometimes excelling agriculture, forestry and fisheries as the most dangerous occupation? All of these occupations involve a heavy industrial approach being carried out in – often extreme – natural environments. Factories themselves have always been hazardous environments but at least some element of control is possible in what amounts to a thoroughly engineered and built structure (if the will is there).

Engineering nature to conform to the kind of controlled environment that is possible in a completely built environment would be enormously expensive.

What presumably happens is that the environment, first, is engineered just enough to make it possible to use the heavy machinery and methods for extraction or production. It is, presumably, engineered to a further point to conform to whatever the current legislated standards of safety happen to be. The massive amounts of engineering that would be required to make mines even as safe as entirely ‘purpose built’ modern factories would undoubtedly be uneconomic. The difference, therefore, is borne by ‘safety procedures’ and, via them, the miners and other workers down a mine.

At the heart of the dangerousness of mining is our society’s reliance on massive extraction of fossil fuels (with coal mining) and metals and minerals for input into industrial manufacturing. It comes down to the fact that our modern world is fundamentally based on a massively exploitative, energy intensive economy. The primary exploitation, it could be said, is of the earth.

That fundamental exploitation, however, feeds through to other forms of exploitation. While living and working is always hazardous in some sense or other, workplace statistics (such as those above) show clearly that some occupations are less dangerous than others. Some types of people end up bearing the brunt of the personal risks that our society generates from its generally exploitative approach to living.

Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations (p. 202) noted why the work of a collier is paid better than the work of others:

A journeyman weaver earns less than a journeyman smith. His work is not always easier, but it is much cleanlier. A journeyman blacksmith, though an artificer, seldom earns so much in twelve hours as a collier, who is only a labourer, does in eight. His work is not quite so dirty, is less dangerous, and is carried on in daylight, above the ground.

So is that it? Miners trade off safety (and cleanliness) for money? Perhaps, but other factors add to the trade off to make the monetary recompense less than it otherwise would be.

The first of these is geographical isolation. The men on the West Coast have few options for employment. They could, of course, move out of the Coast. But remaining where you have grown up or in an environment that appeals (because of its isolation) means that you would take less money than someone, for example, who loves urban cosmopolitan life would accept as a trade off (presumably, they would still have their ‘price’ – it would just be greater).

Second, people who are educated or who have ready access to education would also require more recompense, perhaps, to go down a mine than those who have little education or access to it. Third, the camaraderie of mining towns and the mining workforce may particularly appeal to those who lack or particularly value it and feel that there are few other opportunities available to them that can provide it.

Mining, by its nature, requires close knit workers (much like in the army) who depend on each other for safety. Compared to someone who did not value it highly or who was able to access it through less dangerous means they would accept less compensation.

So that’s it. In our society the most dangerous work goes – naturally – to those with the fewest options, the least education, the most human desire for connection.

Are these the kinds of people who should be in the most danger?

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