“Killed” becomes “trapped”: a big change

San Jose Mine: Together we can create a secure workplace.

In the past four days we have:

-Two miners trapped in coal mine in Colombia
-Four miners trapped in gold mine in Ecuador
-33 miners freed after being trapped in Chile. (Find your own link.)

This is no funny little coincidence. This is almost certainly about a change in public consciousness. I would bet anything that two months ago, these miners would have been written off as dead. Suddenly, everyone knows that the workers in a collapsed mine may be alive and that prompt, professional work can save them. In the public mind, “dead” is now “trapped” until proved otherwise.

This is a lot like the 20th-century transformation of medical care — there was a time when a serious stroke, heart attack or gunshot wound was considered fatal, and little was done to save the victim. Once practices evolved, it became normal to consider these problems to be manageable. (Improved trauma care cut the murder rate in the most industrialized countries over the 20th century.)

This has all sorts of implications. The biggest and most basic is that more workers are going to get saved. It’s horrible to think about how many people have probably been dismissed as dead when they were really trapped but alive.

In addition, regions with lots of underground mines may start buying drill bits, rescue capsules, and other such equipment — who knows, rescue crews in such regions may start considering portable drill rigs to be as much a part of their basic equipment as fire trucks.

Assuming that most places in the world won’t have a rescue-capable drilling rig handy, I expect companies to create a global network to allow rapid response to mine emergencies. One engineer involved in the San Jose rescue said he thought at least a week could have been cut off the rescue with better communication and logistics planning.

In a rather sick way, this is all bad news for mining companies. It’s probably much cheaper to write a $100,000 check to someone’s survivors (big bucks in South America) than to mount a drilling-based rescue effort. But if that means that they will find it more worthwhile to avoid accidents in the first place, great.

If this change in consciousness takes hold, it will be because of the families of the San Jose miners. They insisted from the start that their loved ones were probably alive, prompting a rescue effort even when those of us less knowledgable about mining assumed they were dead. I’m not ashamed to admit my own pessimism. Neither is Health Minister Jaime Mañalich: bully for him. So far President Sebastian Piñera and Mining Minister Laurence Golborne have insisted that they, too, always believed that the guys were alive. That’s possible.

Speaking of mine safety, one way to improve it is for the companies who have problems to stop production after accidents and investigate what happened. Otto Rock, my go-to guy for all things Latin American and minerly, compares two companies’ performance on that score. One is professional. One is…well, go read.

4 thoughts on ““Killed” becomes “trapped”: a big change

  1. Kepler

    Nice post, Setty.

    Why do they hate mining companies? Perhaps because of the devastating effect of mining on the environment, perhaps because of the mining companies’ very frequent meddling with state affairs, paying warlords, financing eternal civil wars and so on (read coltan in Congo or just gold in Venezuela)

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