Disasters in Coal Mining and Bill C-45
Coal mining is a dangerous sector with numerous well-publicized incidents world-wide. The results of poor safety management in these facilities can affect a large number of individuals and families, even causing significant economic damage to the region in which the disaster occurs. We take a look at an explosion in China’s Sichuan province that occurred this week and look back at the infamous Westray disaster here in Canada that changed Canadian labour laws forever:
A China Mine Explosion This Week
An explosion in a south-west China coal mine has resulted in at least 19 casualties and trapped many more. According to the UK’s The Guardian, the mine, located in the coal-rich city of Panzhihua suffered the explosion on Wednesday while 152 miners were inside. Initial rescue and recovery operations brought the bodies of 16 miners to the surface – all of whom had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Three miners were taken to the hospital after being rescued but perished subsequently of unknown causes.
Coal mining disasters are no rare occurrence in china with nearly 2,000 workers killed as a result of coal mining disasters in 2011. This number is a 19% reduction from 2010 thanks to authorities continued efforts to improve and enforce the frequently ignored safety laws of the country. 600 small mines will be shut down this year due to safety concerns.
The Westray Mining Disaster
Here in Canada, it has been a little over twenty years ago since the Westray Mine incident occurred, changing families and Canadian labour law forever after.
The Nova Scotia community of Plymouth suffered one of the most publicized disasters in Canadian natural resource extraction history when the Westray mine operated by Westray Coal Inc., a subsidiary of Curragh Resources Incorporated, was rocked by an explosion caused by ignited methane gases and coal dust. The explosion killed 26 men, 15 of which had their bodies recovered by search teams.
Politically and economically the Westray mine was an important endeavor for the entire nation, providing many desperately needed jobs in Nova Scotia and was supported by both federal and provincial government guaranteed bank loans. Following the accident, both Westray Coal and Curragh Resources (renamed to Curragh Inc.) were bankrupted, impacting the economies of Nova Scotia, the Yukon Territories (in which Curragh Resources had been the largest non-government employer), and indeed the entire country – leaving $12,000,000 in debt for Nova Scotia, $85,000,000 in national debt, over a hundred lost jobs, and families devastated by the loss of their loved ones.
Inquiries into the operations of the mine revealed that adequate safety standards had not been established, or followed from the moment the mine had been opened. Methods of structural support that had been approved only for initial mine setup had continued to be used during actual mining operations and the miners reported working in large amounts of coal dust. One miner was even terminated for making a complaint to the Labour Ministry.
At the time of the Westray disaster, Canadian law did not contain clear-cut legislation regarding an employer’s responsibility to provide its employees with a safe working environment. As a result, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) convict the leadership of Westray Coal and Curragh Inc.
The result of this disaster, and the RCMP’s inability to execute a conviction based on the existing law was Bill C-45, which was formalized into the Canadian Criminal Code on March 31, 2004. The bill forms section 217.1 in the Criminal Code, stating:
“2.17.1 Everyone who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task.”
After each tragedy, safety legislation moves forward becoming stronger in the communities that experience the disaster. The developed World has made great strides in improving the standards to which employers are held, but there is always room for improvement. Perhaps some day soon we will have a world in which coal miners can all live to see retirement and arrive home safely at the end of each shift.