Poor Conditions at Mexico Mine Causing Respiratory Disease Among Workers, Report Says

A new report conducted by a group of independent health and safety experts concluded that miners from Grupo Mexico’s Cananea copper mine in Sonora, Mexico, are showing signs of respiratory disease likely due to “serious health and safety violations” at the mine.

Violations listed in the report 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.

In addition, the report found that workers have been exposed to concentrations of silica dust of “at least 1.2 mg/m3 or 10 times greater than the Mexican Maximum Permissible Exposure Limit (LMPE) of 0.1 mg/m3.”

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,” the report said.

According to Ben Davis of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in Mexico City, experts also “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.”

Mexico’s National Union of Mine and Metal Workers released the report Nov. 12. The report was conducted by a volunteer team comprised of a U.S. pulmonary specialist, two Mexican doctors and three industrial hygienists organized by the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network (MHSSN) – a volunteer network of 400 occupational health and safety professionals. In addition to extensively interviewing and performing lung function tests on 68 Cananea mine workers, the team had a 4-hour walk-around site visit of the mine and its ore processing plants. The United Steel Workers Union (USW), paid for the group’s travel expenses.

Laundry List of Hazards

Other key findings of the investigation include:

  • Grupo Mexico has not conducted sufficient industrial hygiene monitoring to identify, evaluate, and later control health hazards to miners. The employer has also 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 (silica, heavy metals like lead, acid mist, solvents) and physical hazards such as noise and vibration.
  • 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 energized machines, 91 percent of the interviewed mines had not received noise training, 58 percent had not received chemical hazards training, 70 percent had not received electrical hazards training, and 75 percent did not get training on lockout/tagout procedures for operating and repairing energized equipment.
  • In addition to disassembling or failing to install effective local exhaust ventilation to reduce worker exposure to airborne contaminants, Grupo Mexico has relied on inappropriate N-95 paper respirators to protect workers from particulates, acids and vapors. Moreover, respirator users have not been medically evaluated, fit-tested and trained in the use of the PPE.
  • Although the survey team was not able to verify the exact circumstances of the 50 separate accidents reported 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.

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 coal 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.

Last month, a Mexican Congress committee found the company responsible for “negligence and omission” in the Pasta de Conchos explosion.

The survey team recommended that Grupo Mexico should incorporate a massive clean-up operation to eliminate the most immediate hazards to workers health and safety, as well as initiate a comprehensive health and safety remediation plan in order to “establish an ongoing program to oversee the immediate repairs and clean-up, as well as implementing a long-term strategy of preventive maintenance, hazard identification and evaluation, hazard correction, medical surveillance of workers and employee training.”

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