| Written by Michal Wozniakowski-Zehenter
The mining accident of 2010 in Copiapó was a turning point in the way how mines are run, particularly in Chile, generally in South America. 33 miners were rescued after spending more than two months underground.
In this article, we illustrate the current state of mining in South America and how multiple accidents in the 21st century have changed the perception of safety. In addition, we show what measures were implemented to improve safety standards in the region.
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Almost all countries in South America and the Caribbean are expanding mining exploration as one of the essential branches of their economies. After decades of moderate activity, most countries in Latin America have experienced a dramatic increase in mining operations due to favourable metal prices and the need to generate more government revenue. In the last decade, mining in Latin America tripled from US$90.1 billion in 2001 to US$305.8 billion in 2011.
It is worth mentioning that the region's lithium reserves account for 61% of world reserves, copper for 39%, silver for 32% as well as nickel, molybdenum and tin for 25%, zinc for 23%, bauxite for 18%, lead and iron for 15%, and gold for 11 per cent. Common knowledge is the high rank of Chile and Peru in world copper production. The five most significant of them produced almost 3 million tonnes in 2021 – Escodina Mine, Collahausi Mine, El Teniente Mina, Cerro Verde Mina, and Las Bambas Project.
At the beginning of the century, even though some safety standards were in place but were enforced primarily on large mining operations, the biggest issue was in the enforcement in medium and small-size mines. SERNAGEOMIN, the National Geology and Mining Service and a governmental agency, had only 18 inspectors for almost 3,500 businesses.
With such a small number, there was a minimal chance of ensuring the safety protocols nationally. That's why many mines were not forced to improve their standards, being left with an untrained and inexperienced crew and having single-entry operations. During that time, building safety shelters or emergency ladders were neglected for cost-saving and profits. So it is not surprising that business owners and operators didn't pay too much attention to abiding by the rules. All of it was leading to potential disaster.
As metal prices rose and companies continued to seek South America's enormous deposits of minerals, the industry grew more rapidly than it could be regulated. There were conflicts and strikes among the workers concerning safety conditions, compensated with overpay as well a large number of illegal mining operations, where neither rules nor regulations applied. Across the continent, the situation was very similar. Eight miners were found dead in February after an explosion at a coal mine in Oyon province in northern Peru.
In June of the same year, the worst mining accident since the 1980s happened at the Carbones San Fernando coal mine in Colombia. A methane explosion killed more than 70 miners. It took rescuers days to pull out all the bodies. In August in Venezuela, at least six miners died in a wildcat gold mine explosion, but it is believed that the number was actually higher, reaching up to 15 in total.
In August 2010, a tunnel collapsed in the privately-owned medium-sized San Jose mine in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. The story quickly went worldwide. After the state-owned mining company Codelco took over rescue efforts from the mine's owners, exploratory boreholes were drilled. Seventeen days after the accident, a note was found taped to a drill bit pulled back to the surface: "Estamos bien en el refugio los 33" ("We are well in the shelter, the 33 of us"). It took that long because all maps were outdated, and some drillings drifted off target. Miners were trapped more than 620 meters below ground. The mentioned refuge was a place without a proper ventilation system or energy supply. Mine owners never finished the emergency ladder in the ventilation shaft to the top of the mine.
This way was blocked on the 7th of August after the second collapse. The only way to provide water and food to the miners and exchange messages was a narrow borehole the size of a grapefruit.
Three separate teams started to drill three escape boreholes, using the equipment and experience of multiple international corporations using different strategies. Team B was the one who reached miners as the first one. The 638 meters long drilled shaft had to be enlarged in its diameter twice, from 14cm to 30cm and from 30cm to the final 71cm. After 69 days, on the 12th & 13th of October, they were brought to the surface, one by one, in a unique capsule, in an operation that took 22 hours. Fenix 2, the named evacuation capsule, a 54cm in diameter device, was narrow enough to avoid hitting the sides of the tunnel and ensure a safe ride up. It had installed an onboard oxygen supply, lightning, and a communication system.
Despite the good news of rescuing the trapped miners, measures were taken to ensure this kind of accident will not happen again. International work safety groups started to press Chile to adopt international standards for mine safety and execute them properly by the agencies. The minimum standards for mines, such as ventilation systems, fire protection, and emergency response procedures, established in the International Labor Organization agreement in 1995, were tried to be reinforced. Still, unfortunately, up to this day, they have yet to be ratified by Chile. Some union leaders in Chile complained they had seen no notable improvement in mine safety throughout the first year after the accident. A few days after the event, the President of Chile dismissed the national and regional directors of Sernageomin. Afterwards, the Mining minister announced changes to avoid accidents like the one in San Jose. The number of inspectors almost doubled to 45 from 18, the same as the newly created Superintendence of Mining budget.
Shortly after, more than 15 small and medium-sized mines in the Atacama region alone were closed after inspections which increased from 2,600 to almost 4,000 nationwide. Operations were stopped mostly due to unsafe working conditions, lack of ventilation shafts, alternative evacuation exits, and emergency refuges. In addition, San Esteban Primera Mining Company filed for bankruptcy after being flooded by lawsuits. Court orders froze all the assets by the end of the year.
Throughout the years, the situation improved. Awareness of safety issues, along with a push from unions and inspections from Sernageomin, helped improve miners' working conditions. New technologies, such as personnel and asset tracking tags (read more about miner tracking), traceability systems and gas-detecting sensors, helped significantly. In addition, there is a number of global and continental companies that provide solutions to improving safety and efficiency in the region.
Working in mines is dangerous. Most common accidents involve toxic gases, fire, explosions, and crushing by rocks while cave-ins.
Chile is a global leader in copper production, with 27% overall. It's one of the most industrialized countries in South America, where mining is one of the top 3 industries.
Responsibility for safety lies mainly with companies that carry out mining operations. They have duties to ensure that all working personnel is protected from physical harm and health damage either with additional equipment, measures, training, or assessments. In addition, insurance companies can and will act as risk protection advisors to be a second level of the accident prevention system. The next ones are workplace safety regulatory bodies regulating, standardizing, and inspecting mines. Additionally, Worker Unions are proposing changes to protect employees and ensure stricter laws regarding safety.
All of those actions are made to minimize the risk of accidents in the aftermath of the 2010 Chile mine disaster. However, many historical ones could be avoided or foreseen and stopped. For this, all the elements of the safety puzzles must be put together in order to have as low-rate-of-accidents as possible.
Dive deeper into one of our core topics: Miner Safety