The world’s media has been following the plight of the miners trapped in Chile’s San José mine in microscopic detail, but there is far less interest in the conditions the miners normally work in.
Miners’ families have rejoiced at the news that, after two months trapped 700 metres underground, the 33 miners should be able to escape through a newly bored shaft.
But the miners should not have been working in the mine in the first place.
Sernageomin, the country’s mining regulator, ordered it closed after a geological assistant, Manuel Villagran, was killed in a rock explosion in January 2007.
But San Esteban, the mine’s owner, restarted digging less than a year later—even though it had not completed the safety measures that Sernageomin demanded.
One of these was to complete an evacuation ladder.
One of the trapped miners, Luis Urzua, has explained through a TV link, “We attempted to get up through the air shaft but as it didn’t have a ladder we aborted.”
So the whole crisis would have been avoided if the mining company had followed this basic health and safety regulation.
Vincelot Tobar was in charge of risk prevention for San Esteban until he resigned in 2009.
He confirmed that, “They never carried out the most fundamental adjustments needed to avoid disasters like we’re seeing today.
“They always pushed on production. I was the only risk assessor, without a computer, secretary or even a phone.”
Tobar says that in 2006, 182 workers were injured in the mine, 56 of them seriously.
Chilean president Sebastian Piñera has gained popularity through his handling of the crisis.
He promises an increased budget for the mining regulator, and says it will now ensure that worker safety comes first.
Last year the regulator’s budget was £9 million.
Even if Piñera goes ahead with his stated plan to triple this, it will hardly keep pace with the £14 billion expansion in mining projects which Chile’s government predicts.
At present there are only 16 safety auditors for more than 4,500 mines in Chile.
In the region where the San José mine is, there are only three inspectors for 884 mines.
More than 30 people have died each year in Chilean mines over the past decade. The worst year was 2008 with 43 deaths.
Carolina Narváez, who is married to one of the trapped miners, said: “I’m not thinking of monetary compensation.
“I’m thinking of holding people responsible. Not only the mine’s owners but also people who didn’t do their job.”
Unsurprisingly, attention focuses on the 33 who have been trapped and their relatives who have set up a camp outside the mine.
The 2,000 journalists who have descended on the camp are fascinated by the fame and money that might come to the trapped miners.
They pay less attention to the rest of the workers at the mine who have been laid off without pay since the disaster.