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Wales mine deaths: Privatisation comes under the spotlight
The tragic deaths of four coalminers at the Gleision Colliery in the Swansea Valley, South Wales, has inevitably raised the issue of safety in the mining industry. A member of Tower Colliery Lodge NUM and Socialist Party Wales looks at what has happened to health and safety in the mines since privatisation in 1994.
Health and safety legislation and regulations for the mining industry in Britain are very comprehensive, but they only work to their full extent when miners are in a position to see them enforced.
The rules exist because miners have fought for them through our union, the NUM and its predecessors.
Privatisation in 1994 saw conditions in the industry take a big step backwards. There has been a fracturing and fragmentation of mining practices. The various private operators have very different ideas of what equipment to use and how to organise the running of collieries.
It's common now to find equipment in place that had not been used under British Coal since the 1960s. Practices and standards of operation in some collieries would not have been accepted by the union pre-privatisation. In some cases, even in large collieries run by major companies, conditions today are frankly dangerous.
The NUM has kept pushing for improvements in regulations post-privatisation and has had a few important successes.
One was the introduction in the 1990s of modern 'safe havens', where in an emergency miners can find food, spare self-rescuers, independent ventilation and communications equipment in a sealed or semi-sealed installation.
Miners at Tower Colliery in South Wales, which was run as a cooperative from 1995-2008, were at the forefront of the introduction of safe haven regulations.
Unfortunately, legislation has been left deliberately vague. Under the "Escape and Rescue from Mines Regulations 1995", the mine manager only has to provide safe havens where they are considered necessary to the emergency plan for the pit.
The law has also been changed for the worse post-privatisation. A prime example is roof bolting, which in 1996 was made legal as a primary support for roadways where "the HSE has granted exemption" from the 1954 and 1966 legislation.
That previous legislation said that underground roadways had to be supported by steel rings.
In America and Australia where unions were not in as strong a position, roof bolting had been long been used, despite on-going controversy. Roof bolting has certainly been responsible for deaths in British pits.
Many regulations do not even apply to small mines. According to Mines Rescue team members, speaking in a personal capacity, conditions at Gleision Colliery were 19th century. The only modern equipment was the panzer that brought out the coal.
That doesn't mean that the private owner was intentionally negligent, but he didn't have the money to operate a modern mine.
The simple lesson from this terrible tragedy (and one that trade union members all over the world have argued for many, years) is that mining is an industry that needs to be run on a nationalised basis under democratic control, with consistent standards, the funding to implement them and constant oversight by a well-organised union.
Mining will never be completely safe. When you're working underground, the environment is always unpredictable.
To work as safely as possible, you need the highest level of skills in the team on every shift and safety has to come first in every single decision made in the running of the pit. That will never be the case in a private industry run to maximise profit.
In The Socialist 21 September 2011:
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