International OHS Through the Looking Glass of the Global Economy

Jan. 1, 2008
The occupational health and safety conditions at the giant open-pit copper mine in Cananea, Mexico displayed how workplace safety in the global economy

The occupational health and safety conditions at the giant open-pit copper mine in Cananea, Mexico displayed how workplace safety in the global economy can best be understood through the intersection of transnational corporations, a “race to the bottom” in working conditions and growing labor internationalism.

The historic, open-pit mine and processing plants in Cananea, Mexico are operated by the family-owned, transnational conglomerate Grupo Mexico, which acquired the mine for pennies on the dollar during the privatization of Mexico's state enterprises in the 1990s. Grupo Mexico also ended up owning several of Mexico's railroads, as well as copper mines in Peru, and it recently bought the bankrupt ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Co.), which has mine and smelter properties in Arizona. Cananea is just 30 miles south of the Arizona border.

Like other transnational corporations in the global economy, Grupo Mexico has been on a relentless drive to reduce production costs, including weakening or eliminating labor unions, to boost corporate profits. Two years ago, Grupo Mexico began sustained attempts to replace unionized mine workers in Cananea with lower-cost, non-union contractor employees.

When Local 65 of the Mexican Miners union — one of the oldest and strongest in Mexico — refused to allow non-union maintenance and housekeeping contract employees into the mine, Grupo Mexico literally disassembled the dust collectors in the multi-building Concentrator Department and piled the duct work on the ground next to Area 23, one of the enclosed buildings processing the copper coming from the open-pit mine.

From that time forward, there has been a contest of wills between Grupo Mexico and the miners over how much silica-containing ore dust the mine workers are willing to breathe — given that the company disconnected the local ventilation systems — and how important it is to the miners to prevent their union from being steadily eaten away by increasing numbers of non-union contract employees. Some 400 contract workers already are on the job along with 1,200 unionized mine workers.

Over the last 2 years, the mine's concentrator buildings have been filled with dense clouds of rock dust, forming snowdrift-sized piles of settled dust two to three feet high through the plants. A bulk sample of the accumulated dust taken in October 2007 and sent to an AIHA-accredited laboratory in the United States found the dust was 23 percent crystalline silica, with 50 percent of particles in the respirable range of less than 10 microns in diameter.

Finally, in July 2007, the miners union struck the Cananea mine over health and safety issues, foremost among them being hazardous exposures to silica, a known human carcinogen and the cause of debilitating and usually fatal silicosis. The union miners also were reacting to an attempt by Grupo Mexico to establish a rival, company-friendly union (with only 85 members compared to the historic union's 1,200 members) as the sole legal union on site.

When the Cananea miners went on strike on July 30, the United Steel Workers (USW) union in the United States launched a solidarity campaign. The USW represents copper miners in Arizona working for ASARCO, now owned by Grupo Mexico, and, “thinking globally,” has tried to build bridges to both the Mexican and Peruvian miners unions as all three unions have members employed by Grupo Mexico.

The Peruvian miners union also has conducted several strikes at Grupo Mexico-owned facilities over the last year, in part in response to Grupo Mexico's attempt to impose 12-hour shifts, instead of 8-hour days, on the mines. The unions consider 12-hour shifts in mining operations to be a serious safety hazard due to accidents caused by worker fatigue.

Reaching Out for Help

In September 2007, USW passed along to the all-volunteer Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network (MHSSN) a request from Local 65 of the Mexican Miners union for an independent evaluation of the working conditions in the Cananea mine and the health status of the mine workers.

In 2 weeks, the MHSSN pulled together a volunteer team of eight occupational professionals to go to Cananea to conduct extensive interviews with 70 miners, perform lung function tests (spirometry) on the miners and spend 4 hours touring both the open-pit mine and the processing plants.

The OHS survey team consisted of three Mexicans (two occupational physicians and an industrial hygienist), four U.S. citizens (an occupational doctor, a registered nurse, an industrial hygienist and a Mexican-American pulmonary technician) and a third industrial hygienist from Colombia. A Southern California local union of the USW put up the $3,500 needed for travel expenses and all the professionals donated their time.

The OHS survey team spent a day and half interviewing and testing mine workers, who were recruited to participate by Local 65 of the Mexican Miners union, at the miners union hall in downtown Cananea. The afternoon of the second day was spent driving through the giant open-pit mine and walking through the multiple processing plants, where the bulk samples of settled rock dust were collected.

The multi-national OHS survey team was shocked at the level of disrepair and non-existent housekeeping in such a large facility operated by a major transnational corporation. The team concluded the Cananea mine and processing plants were being “deliberately run into the ground,” according to the report issued by the survey team in November. Among the team's other findings, based on the worker interviews and spirometry test results, were:

  • Semi-quantitative calculations indicate workers in the concentrator area are exposed to dust levels of at least 10 milligrams per cubic meter 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;

  • There are substantial elevations in the prevalence of respiratory symptoms in a population that should be healthier than the general, non-industrial worker population. These symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, cough and sputum production, which appears to be related to dust exposure estimates. These symptoms reflect past exposures, and likely underestimate the burden of disease that will occur in this population if the current exposures continue;

The group found that Grupo Mexico, in violation of existing Mexican workplace safety regulations, failed to:

  • Conduct 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 and hot and cold conditions;

  • Install effective ventilation and source pollution controls for silica-containing dust in the concentrator buildings and in the two ESDE plants to prevent hazardous exposures to sulfuric acid mists. The presence of high levels of acid mist is indicated by the fact that the floors and structural steel frame of ESDE II building have been eaten away;

  • Conduct a comprehensive medical surveillance program to determine the health status of workers exposed to airborne contaminants (silica, heavy metals like lead, acid mists, solvents) and physical hazards such as noise and vibration;

  • Provide 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 miners had not received noise training, 58 percent had not received chemical hazards training, 70 percent had not received electrical hazards training and 75 percent had not received training on lockout/tagout procedures for operating and repairing energized equipment; and

  • Correct serious electrical, machine-guarding and other 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 refrigerator-sized rocks blasted out of an open-pit mine.

The OHS survey team could not verify the exact circumstances of the 50 separate accidents reported at the site in the past 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. The investigators also found the enterprise's required Joint Management-Labor Safety Committee is small — six members total — and unable to conduct or oversee effective safety inspections, hazard corrections, accident investigations and employee training.

In April 2007, before the strike closed the facility, two inspectors from the Mexican Department of Labor (STPS) also inspected the mine and processing plants over 2 days. At the end of the site visit, the inspectors issued a report ordering Grupo Mexico to implement 72 separate corrective actions. The STPS findings confirm the reports of unsafe working conditions made by workers interviewed in October by the MHSSN team.

Among the 72 corrective actions prescribed by the STPS include orders to: 1) re-assemble and use dust collectors in the concentrator buildings; 2) repair the malfunctioning brakes on a 10-ton and a 15-ton crane in Area 30 of the concentrator; 3) install guards on moving parts and energized equipment; 4) correct numerous electrical hazards; 5) repair or replace damaged or missing wall and roof panels; and 6) implement a major housekeeping effort to clean up accumulated dusts throughout the plant.

Report Issued

In November 2007, the MHSSN team publicly issued its report at a press conference in Mexico City with miners from Local 65 in Cananea, representatives of the national office of the Mexican Miners union and USW members from the Arizona ASARCO mines and USW's Pittsburgh headquarters. (English and Spanish language versions of the MHSSN report, and photographs from the Cananea mine, are posted at

Following the press conference, the joint MHSSN-union delegation met with STPS officials to request the creation of a tripartite (government-management-labor) commission to verify working conditions at the Cananea mine. Grupo Mexico, for its part, denied there were any unsafe conditions or worker illnesses at the mine.

A day later, the STPS responded by stating that the MHSSN study was not “legally valid,” but refused to either follow up its own April 2007 inspection or establish a special fact-finding commission to resolve conflicting reports of actual conditions in the mine and processing plants.

The next step of this international OHS project will likely include filing a complaint under the labor side agreement of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in January 2008 by MHSSN and interested unions and labor rights organizations in Mexico and the United States. Efforts also are being made to raise funds for a more comprehensive health study of active and retired mines to determine the prevalence of respiratory diseases like silicosis.

The “new world order” of occupational safety and health in the globalized economy is evident even in this small project. A transnational corporation operates facilities in three countries, and, as many other transnationals do, exerts downward pressure in each country to maximize operating revenues and profits. The mine workers in the three countries are building bridges of solidarity and working toward “coordinated bargaining” with their common employer. And at the same time, occupational health professionals from three countries are volunteering their time and expertise to prevent a “race to the bottom” in workplace safety from undermining working conditions and workers' health throughout the global economy.

Garrett Brown, MPH, CIH, is coordinator of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network and was a member of the OHS survey team in Cananea. The Cananea report and photos are posted at

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