THE United Steelworkers (USW) last Tuesday said a new report conducted by a group of independent health and safety experts should serve as a wake-up call for Grupo Mexico, the world’s third-largest copper producer with an allegedly deadly record of worker safety violations.
The report released today concludes that there are ‘serious health and safety violations’ at Grupo Mexico’s Cananea copper mine in Sonora, Mexico. Violations include a lack of preventive maintenance, failing equipment, high levels of toxic dusts and acid mist and a refusal by the company to properly implement worker health and safety programs.
The experts ‘found a high concentration of silica dust, which is a carcinogen. They found that the company was not implementing its safety program. They found inadequate ventilation in the mine, lack of safety equipment, a very high rate of accidents – problems that unfortunately we’ve seen before in the Mexican mining industry and especially at Grupo Mexico,’ said Ben Davis of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in Mexico City.
Cananea workers, represented by Mexico’s National Union of Mine and Metal Workers, have been on strike since July 30 to protest poor health and safety conditions. The strike follows a February 2006 explosion at a Grupo Mexico mine that killed 65 miners.
The government consorted with Grupo Mexico to shut down rescue efforts after only six days, leaving the 65 miners entombed for eternity.
Last month, a Mexican Congress committee found the company responsible for ‘negligence and omission’ in the Pasta de Conchos explosion.
‘This report should serve as a wake-up call to Grupo México and German Larrea,’ said Manuel Armenta, USW’s District 12 Sub-Director in Arizona.
‘We are trying to prevent another disaster like at Pasta de Conchos.’
Grupo Mexico also has mines in the United States, operating as Asarco. The USW represents these workers in Arizona and Texas.
The report was conducted by a volunteer team organised by the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network (MHSSN), a volunteer network of 400 occupational health and safety professionals provide information, technical assistance and on-site instruction regarding workplace hazards in the 3,000 maquiladora, or foreign-owned, workplaces along the US-Mexico border.
The team conducted an inspection of the Cananea mine from October 5-8, 2007, and performed tests on a sample population of 68 workers. The investigators concluded that ‘there are serious health and safety hazards at the Cananea mine operation that require immediate and long-term corrections in order to protect workers from both accidents and occupational diseases,’ said MHSSN director Garrett Brown.
Members of the team included Heather Barr, a registered nurse from San Francisco, California; Certified Industrial Hygienist Garrett Brown of Oakland, California, Dr Octavio Castro of Hermosillo, Mexico; Dr Robert Cohen of Chicago; Dr Marian Fierro of Mexicali, Mexico; Certified Industrial Hygenist Enrique Medina of San Diego California.; Moises Ortega, a registered pulmonary function technologist from Chicago; and Ingrid Zubieta, who has a masters in public health, from Los Angeles, California.
Key allegations of the investigation include:
• The conditions observed inside the mine and processing plants, and the work practices reported by the interviewed workers, paint a clear picture of a workplace being ‘deliberately run into the ground.’ A serious lack of preventive maintenance, failure to repair equipment and correct visible safety hazards, and a conspicuous lack of basic housekeeping has created a work site where workers have been exposed to high levels of toxic dusts and acid mists, operate malfunctioning and poorly maintained equipment, and work in simply dangerous surroundings.
• The dismantling of dust collectors in the Concentrator area processing plants by Grupo Mexico approximately two years ago means that workers in these areas have been subjected to high concentrations of dust containing 23 per cent quartz silica, with 51 per cent of sampled dust in the respirable particle size range, protected only by completely inadequate personal respirators. Occupational exposures to silica can lead to debilitating, fatal respiratory diseases including silicosis and lung cancer.
• Semi-quantitative calculations indicate workers in the Concentrator area are exposed to dust levels of at least 10 milligrams per cubic metre of air (mg/m3). The respirable quartz silica component of this dust would be at least 1.2 mg/m3, or 10 times greater than the Mexican Maximum Permissible Exposure Limit (LMPE) of 0.1 mg/m3. Without any operating dust collection equipment, workers in the Concentrator area must be provided with Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs), or supplied-air respirators in continuous flow mode, to protect them against inhalation exposures to silica dust, instead of the paper filtering facepieces currently in use.
• Implementation of Grupo Mexico’s overall safety program at the mine has not resulted in effective, comprehensive protection of workers. There are serious health and safety hazards created by industrial-scale mining, crushing and pulverizing, acid leaching and electro-plating, and milling operations to produce fine powder copper ore from a huge open-pit, hard rock mine. The required Joint Management-Labour Safety Committee is small – six members total – and unable to conduct or oversee effective safety inspections, hazard corrections, accident investigations and employee training.
• Grupo Mexico has not conducted sufficient industrial hygiene monitoring to identify, evaluate, and later control health hazards to miners including exposure to mineral dusts (including silica), acid mists, airborne solvents, high noise levels, high vibration levels, hot and cold conditions. The employer has failed to inform, as required by Mexican law, monitored employees of their measured exposures to hazardous substances.
• Grupo Mexico has not conducted a comprehensive medical surveillance program to determine the health status of workers exposed to airborne contaminants (silicia, heavy metals like lead, acid mist, solvents) and physical hazards such as noise and vibration. The employer has failed to inform, as required by Mexican law, the few workers who have been examined of the results of the medical tests.
• Grupo Mexico has not provided the training required by Mexican law to workers with hazardous exposures that trigger the training requirement. Despite high noise levels, exposure to chemicals, and exposures to energised machines, 91 per cent of the interviewed mines had not received noise training, 58 per cent had not received chemical hazards training, 70 per cent had not received electrical hazards training, and 75 per cent did not get training on lockout/tagout procedures for operating and repairing energised equipment.
• Grupo Mexico has failed to install effective ventilation and source pollution controls in the two ESDE plants to prevent hazardous exposures to sulfuric acid mists to workers. One marker of the levels of acid mist is that the floors and structural steel frame of the ESDE II building have been eaten away by highly concentrated acid mist.
• In addition to disassembling or failing to install effective local exhaust ventilation to reduce worker exposure to airborne contaminants, Grupo Mexico has relied on personal protective equipment (PPE), inappropriate N-95 paper respirators, to protect workers from particulates, acids and vapours. Moreover, respirator users have not been medically evaluated, fit-tested and trained in the use of the PPE.
• Although the OHS survey team could not verify the exact circumstances of the 50 separate accidents alleged to have occurred on site in the last 12 months, the anecdotal reports of broken limbs, amputations, electrocutions, falls, burns, and at least one fatality, suggest these incidents were the result of unsafe working conditions, poorly maintained machinery and equipment, and inadequate safety procedures. Such root causes of the reported accidents would closely coincide with the on-site observations of the OHS survey team.
The USW represents 850,000 workers in the US and Canada employed in the industries of metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil refining and the service sector.