Mining is globally recognised as among the most dangerous and unsafe industries for workers; more so in Pakistan where mining operations remain obsolete and safety measures negligible, if any. There are extensive reserves of mineral deposits in Pakistan including coal, copper, iron ore, gold, rock salt, and construction minerals like limestone. At present 52 minerals and elements are under exploitation in the country.
There is a very high risk of death and injuries from explosions, cave-ins and equipment accidents in the mines and quarries, with most fatal and non-fatal accidents occurring in coalmines across the country. Not surprisingly, these accidents and incidents are not properly reported or recorded and there are no reliable statistics available at the government level either. According to the miners’ welfare organisation, Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation, affiliated with the Industrial Global Union in Geneva, an average of two-hundred miners die every year in work-related accidents in Pakistan.
In the first seven months of this year as many as 94 workers were killed in various mines. In mineral-rich Balochistan alone, where coalmining activities are in progress in six areas, on average at least 120 workers die each year. On July 14, eleven coalminers were trapped inside the main access tunnel of a coalmine in Quetta, and only one survived. In April, four miners were suffocated to death in a coalmine in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The year 2018 was the deadliest year for the coalminers. Three workers were killed in a methane gas blast at Chamalang coalmines, Balochistan. On January 11, two coalminers died after a mine collapsed in Dukki district of the province. Again, on January 13, three workers were killed in an accident in a state-owned coalmine in the province. On May 6, twenty-three workers died in two accidents in Marwar near Quetta and Sor-Range coalmines of Balochistan. In a major accident nine coalminers were killed and another four injured when a coalmine collapsed in Darra Adam Khel in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in September 2018. Darra Adam Khel near Peshawar has recently emerged as a coal mining hub with a daily output of around 1,000 tons of coal, having hundreds of coalmines that employ some 15,000 miners. In all cases other mine-workers too sustained serious injuries. Unfortunately, such horrific accidents resulting in death, injury and destitution to workers continue unabated.
Currently, over 8,000 million tons of coal is extracted worldwide. Coal is mined by two methods -surface (or open-cast) mining and underground (or deep) mining, depending largely on the geology of the coal deposit and economic conditions. Pakistan, with some of the largest coal reserves in the world, mostly employs manual and semi-mechanised mining practices. Annual coal extraction is around 3.5 million tons, which is used in brick kilns, cement industry and power generation. More than 100,000 workers are employed in 400 coalmines located in remote, isolated areas.
Coalmine accidents occur due to a variety of factors. Firstly, mining practices are generally outdated if not primitive, and thus operating conditions are deplorable, particularly in informal sector. This is applicable to both privately-owned and state-owned coalmines, whether small or medium, whereas large mines such as at Thar coalfields are exceptions. These small and medium coalmines operate on contractual and subcontractual basis, whereas many small coalmines are running illegally. Secondly, there is complete absence of safety measures and security precautions. Safety standards are widely ignored in coalmines leading to various tragic incidents.
Miners dig the coal from underneath up to 2,500 meters. Accidents are common. The miners suffocate to death due to poisonous carbon monoxide as air ventilation is lacking or inadequate. Coalmines also produce methane gas which is highly inflammable and presents the risk of explosion. Average emission and prevalence of such gases exceed the internationally permissible limits. Risk of accidents therefore multiplies when unskilled and untrained miners work without safety protocols. Only safety lamps are usually available, while gas detectors, if any, are unreliable for having never been calibrated after purchase.
Thirdly, even the basic facilities, accessories and equipment, which reduce exposure to the risks, are not made available. The accessories for personal protection of miners include safety hats, protective clothing, respirators, ear protectors and ventilation system. Rescue of victims have been difficult in almost all accidents in the absence of well-equipped emergency response teams. There are no investigations of accidents, and practically no compensation to the workers or their families. In addition, the coalminers are exposed to serious occupational respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer, gastro and hepatitis, besides psychological disorders. The dilemma of coalminers is to work at very low wages, under subhuman conditions and without taking safety measures.
Lastly but most importantly, regulating and inspection of mines mechanism is poor and ineffective. The prevalent laws are obsolete, outdated and non-conforming to international practices. Mines Act 1923 is still applicable, but, ironically even the safety measures described therein are not followed today. Coal Mines Regulations 1926 has been revised in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recently, but remains a draft. Labour laws are not being enforced effectively by the provincial governments anyways.
Our mining industry is termed as the most unregulated industry in the world as mines and their operations are not under any active government supervision. Many cases of violations are registered against owners but only minor penalties, ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000, are imposed as per rules. Mineral policies formulated from time to time are just paperwork. There are always promises of developing mine safety and health plans in each province but without any physical action plan. There is a strong need to make the corresponding institutions effective, and enforce all the prevalent labour laws in letter and spirit.
In recent years, the promotion of occupational safety and health in the mining sector has assumed greater relevance and significance worldwide. International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Code of Practice on Safety and Health in Underground Coalmines has established guidelines for addressing specific occupational hazards in underground coalmines. This is not followed. Also, Pakistan has not yet ratified ILO’s important Convention (C 176) on Safety and Health in Mines. The Convention is in force since June 1995 and ratified by 33 countries. It is imperative the Government of Pakistan ratifies the Convention without further delay, and implement the same immediately.
The writer is retired chairman of the State Engineering Corporation