June/July 2014

Editor's letter

Hard to win, too easy to lose

By Ryan Bergen

Ryan Bergen In May, CIM honoured members of the Canadian mining industry, including the winners of the John T. Ryan safety awards. The trophies were given out to mine operators who had the lowest reportable injury frequency in 2013. Though there are only three categories – coal, metal and select mines – the spotlight had to be divided six ways because contenders in two of the three categories had no reportable lost time injuries at all. Any lifetime CIM member with 50 years in the industry can tell you how remarkable that achievement is. There are some still around who remember being warned that the average cost for 500 feet of shaft development was one life.

The day after the CIM awards gala, an explosion roared through the underground workings of the Soma coal mine in Turkey. The blast, subsequent fire, and the spread of poisonous gases killed 301 of the nearly 800 workers underground at the time, making it the worst mine disaster in that country’s history. It also drove people into the streets to protest Turkey’s poor safety standards in the mining industry and its government’s callous reaction to the event. Reporting on the disaster revealed that the mine had been inspected a number of times, apparently confirming the need for an investigation into the corruption and lax enforcement in the sector that opposition lawmakers had demanded just weeks before the explosion. Coal company executives have since been arrested and mining practices in the country are now subject to the scrutiny that was tragically overdue.

Progress toward safer workplaces is not a slow and steady march. Forty years ago in Ontario, union members, incensed by the apparent disregard for the recently discovered cancer-risks of uranium mining, walked off the job in an illegal strike to push for better safety standards. As Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco details in “The strike that saved lives,” the overhaul of occupational health and safety practices that followed was a catalyst for innovation and mining’s safety record in this country improved dramatically.

Ten years from now, I hope the members of the Turkish mining industry will be able to boast similar advances. The terrible irony of the Soma disaster is that the vast majority of the lessons and recommendations that will come from the investigation will likely not be new. They have already been learned and integrated into operations, as the crowded stage for the John T. Ryan awards demonstrated.

The deaths of Marc Methé and Norm Bissaillon at the Lockerby Mine and Lorna Weafer at Suncor’s oil sands site in May, however, highlight how elusive the goal of “zero harm” is. Regardless of the scale, whether in Canada or overseas, as quickly as progress in safety can potentially be made, it can be undone that much faster.

Ryan Bergen

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