Turkish mine disaster reveals national safety failures

| May 21, 2014

Mining accidents are not new in Turkey, which is the world’s seventh largest producer of coal. More than 3,000 people have been killed since 1941 and a reported 13,000 miners suffered workplace accidents last year. The country’s mining industry is riddled with safety loopholes; Turkey’s mines supposedly have the most dangerous work conditions in the world. The recent mining disaster near Soma, the nation’s worst mining accident ever, has led to overwhelming public protests from within the nation and worldwide, sparking concerns for the safety of the people working in these death traps.

Official records in the Soma mine disaster state that 301 workers (out of the 787 trapped) lost their lives after an explosion in the power distribution unit lead to a fire. A majority of the victims, stuck as deep as 1,378 feet in the lignite coalmine, died from inhaling poisonous carbon-monoxide.

Miner crying

Miners mourning the loss of friends and coworkers. Image by: Washington Post

Unsympathetic response fuels public outcry

The high death toll and the government’s apathy towards the national crisis led to subsequent protests in Soma, Istanbul, Ankara, and the western city of Izmir. Also, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s insensitive statement to downplay the enormity of the crisis fueled the public ire. “This is what happens in coalmining. There is no such thing as accident-free work,” he said on a visit to the scene of the disaster.

Erdoğan also drew parallels with nineteenth-century Britain and added “…let’s please not say that these things never happen elsewhere in coalmines. These things happen. We do have something called an accident at work.” Turkey’s anti-government press has criticized the prime minister and his cabinet for the “botched handling of the crisis.”

Miners accuse company of negligence

A preliminary report by a mine safety expert indicates that the mine’s roof collapsed due to smoldering coal. The report also revealed that the tunnel’s support beams were made of wood, not metal, and there were not enough carbon monoxide sensors.

The national association of electrical engineers has termed the disaster as a murder and has accused mine operators of using obsolete equipment and not providing adequate ventilation systems.

According to CNN’s report, mine authorities have indicated that it is possible workers did not have access to an emergency refuge where they could have taken shelter from the flames and choking fumes.

In a press conference, mine officials admitted that there was no working refuge chamber in the mine. Soma Holding Chairman and owner Alp Gürkan told that the main refuge room that could hold 500 people was closed when production finished in that part of the mine. However, the executives stressed that an escape route was present close to ground level, giving workers an exit to leave from without having to walk 300 meters to the entrance.

Miner Erdal Bicak believes that company negligence is the main reason why so many of his colleagues lost their lives. He says that although the managers had machines to measure the methane gas levels, they did not inform the workers well ahead of the rising intensity of the toxic gas. Also, safety inspectors only visited the top 100 meters of the mine and were not aware of the hazardous narrow, steep, and cramped sections at the lower reaches.

Another survivor, Ibrahim Kursun says that workers were left to survive on their own. “We had no escape plan. I felt my way along a passageway until I saw light.”

Emre Alaca, a 29-year-old miner rescued from the mine says, “The oxygen masks many needed to survive were faulty. Checking masks should have been an easy thing for inspectors to do.”

Sefa Koken, a safety inspector at the mine alleged that his superiors ignored the increase in the frequency of mine fires last month. Safety detectors recorded dangerous gas buildups in the mine just days before the fire.

Minister says mine inspected 11 times since 2009

Government and mining officials insist that the mine was inspected on a regular basis. According to AKP Cabinet minister Huseyin Celik “this incident involved no acts of negligence.” The mine had been “inspected thoroughly, 11 times, since 2009.”

Gürkan said that the mine met the highest standards laid out by the law in Turkey and the company had no legal obligation to build safety chambers. “We have spent our income to improve working conditions to avoid possible accidents,” he said.

Defending Turkey’s workplace safety act, Minister of Labor and Social Security, Faruk Celik said that the law was set up within the framework of EU regulations. Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) had rejected a demand for a parliamentary investigation regarding safety in the Soma mines just weeks ago, on April 29. However, the labor ministry said the mine had been checked on 17 March and a clean record had been issued. Bicak says the last inspection at the Soma mine was six months ago. Another rescued miner says that he has never witnessed a safety inspection.

According to the Turkey’s Energy Ministry, 100 coalmines have been shut for operation in the last three years due to lack of safety inspections.

Another black mark in Turkey’s scarred mining history

The Soma mining disaster has surpassed the death toll of a firedamp explosion that killed 263 miners in Zonguldak, situated in the west coast of Turkey, in 1992. Worldwide, mining deaths per ton in Turkey outnumber those in US and China, world’s biggest coal producers. Although China produces fifty times the coal In Turkey, the mining fatalities in Turkey are five times higher than in China, which has its own reputation for soaring mining deaths.

People around mining areas have little choice, but to work in the mines. Mining creates jobs for over 90,000 people in Turkey, but it eliminates the possibility of alternative occupation around the vicinity, like farming. Ali Ergin Demirhan, a labor-rights activist, says that the government supports subcontractors and private mines. Unions are weak and “the working class doesn’t have the power to protect itself against the corporations.”

The Natural Disaster and Emergency Coordination Directorate confirmed that investigations are on to find out the cause of the deadliest disaster in the Turkish mining industry. Eight people including CEO Can Gurkan, Soma Coal Mining Company operating manager Akin Celik, engineers Yalcin Erdogan and Ertan Ersoy, and security chief Yasin Kurnaz have already been arrested in connection to the mine fire. They are accused of “causing the reckless killing of more than one person.”


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