On Jan. 17, the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network (MHSSN) released a final report based on the findings of a team of independent occupational health professionals who visited the open-pit copper mine owned by Grupo Mexico in October 2007. They discovered a host of safety violations, unsafe working conditions and a prevalence of respiratory symptoms. For more information on the MHSSN findings, including a list of hazards uncovered by the investigation, see Poor Conditions at Mexico Mine Causing Respiratory Disease Among Workers, Report Says.
Garrett Brown, MPH, CIH, visited Cananea in October as part of the survey team. One of the most significant recent developments, he explained, is that the Mexican Secretaria del Trabajo y Provision Social (STPS), after failing to follow through on its own recommendations and after denying MHSSN’s findings, now acknowledges the worker safety conditions in Cananea must be addressed.
STPS Corrections Not Implemented
STPS conducted a two-day inspection at the Cananea mine in April 2007 and came away with a report confirming workers’ reports of unsafe conditions. STPS identified 72 separate corrective actions, including installing dust collectors, repairing malfunctioning breaks on cranes, correcting electrical hazards and conducting a major housekeeping effort to clean up accumulated dust.
When the independent survey team members visited the site in October, however, they found that the infractions identified by STPS had not been corrected. The team was unable to visit all areas referenced in the April report, but of those they did inspect, visible hazards previously cited by STPS were still present.
“Many of the findings we had in October were exactly the same the STPS found in April, so clearly they hadn’t been corrected between April and a few months later when the mine went on strike,” Brown told Occupationalhazards.com.
STPS Rejects Preliminary Report
According to Brown, STPS “said there were no problems” in the mine after the MHSSN released a preliminary report in November 2007.
Furthermore, Brown said STPS claimed the report was invalid in part because the survey was conducted during a strike. In July 2007, 1,200 members of the Mexican National Union of Mining, Metallurgical and Similar Workers went on strike to protest unsafe working conditions at the Grupo Mexico mine.
But after the government intervened to break the strike in January, Brown said, STPS announced its intentions to help correct the safety issues at the mine.
“In terms of health and safety, it’s interesting that STPS is now saying that they will be making extraordinary efforts to improve conditions there,” Brown said.
The situation is further complicated as non-union workers return to the mine under the watch of armed police sent with government orders to end the strike. Brown estimates that police occupation has prompted about 350 employees to currently work in the mine.
Grupo Mexico to Hire Safety Consultants
While Brown points out that Grupo Mexico also claimed that the conditions were “optimal” before the strike, he says the company now acknowledges there may be problems on the site. Grupo Mexico recently announced Dupont and Safety Solutions International will evaluate the facility.
“… the question is whether Dupont and Safety Solutions will do a professional job in terms of evaluating what the hazards are on site, or whether it’s a whitewash to protect their client’s reputation,” Brown said.
Christine O’Brien, a spokesperson for Dupont, told Occupationalhazards.com that Grupo Mexico has requested Dupont’s services.
“Grupo Mexico did contact Dupont and asked them to do a safety consultation,” she confirmed. “Dupont agreed to talk to them and look at the site. But there’s no contract at this point.”
O’Brien explained that since Grupo Mexico contacted Dupont within the past week, it was still too early to establish a definitive plan. She said that Dupont likely will make a site visit and create a proposal outlining what the site needs and what options are available to the company.
Brown stressed that the first order of business should be fixing the 72 corrective actions that STPS ordered in April. Among the improvements and corrections listed in the final report, the survey team recommends:
- Once the mine reopens, a “massive” clean-up operation must be conducted to remove immediate safety and health hazards;
- Grupo Mexico should initiate a comprehensive health and safety remediation plan for the facility to establish an ongoing program to manage repairs and clean-up;
- Grupo Mexico should implement a medical surveillance program for employees, including chest radiography, spirometry and respiratory symptom evaluation; and
- The Mexican government must ensure workers are protected against all regulated hazards, and that Grupo Mexico complies with workplace safety standards.
“Bottom line, there are clearly big health and safety problems,” Brown said. “And our appeal is that STPS do its job.”
Take a look in the upcoming January issue of Occupational Hazards to read a feature article about the workplace conditions in the Cananea mine: International OHS Through the Looking Glass of the Global Economy.