13 October 2010: The message above and the posting below first appeared on this blog soon after the miners were trapped. Today I heard on the radio that 13 are already out and the rest are being lifted to safety. Thus we rejoice for their rescue, hold our breath for the rest as they come up, and stand in awe at their courage and fortitude. We applaud those who have worked to save them. But we must not forget the conditions that allowed this to happen; and we must hope that things now change.
This message of support appears on the InfoMine Careers page. We replicate it here to reinforce our empathy.
The story is well known: thirty-three Chilean miners trapped below ground; a long wait as those on surface bore down to them; a small passage through which they are receiving food; and an heroic demand on them to work and remain calm.
This is the situation that arouses our instincts to sympathy: miners; like people we know; trapped in a situation that sometimes occurs in nightmares; hope yet despair; anger yet relief. The instinct is to do something; but what? Writing about it seems so small an act. Yet we do, because it is all we can do.
It is trite to recount the litany of miners in similar and worse situations. How can one tally the mining disasters? Dierks Bentley sings of conditions in a mine, and one listens in chilled silence as the home-bound traffic whizzes past.
This situation floods me with memories of analogous times when as a kid on the East Geduld mine, the house would fall silent as my father, a miner, would come home late ,or not at all, because of accidents and deaths, because of the need to dig someone out, staunch an underground flood, or suppress a fire in the timbers. A tension would envelop the mine and the houses in which we lived. Neighbors would desist from chatting, kids would refrained from gamboling, and we would all go somber until the worst had past.
No matter the number of accidents, life would have to go on. For there was no alternative. Bread had to be gotten, bills paid, school uniforms purchased. But why, today does this have to occur with such regularity? Technology has advanced. Management systems have improved. We know and demand more. It is unlikely mining will ever be as safe as flying; but it can and must be made safer than current averages.
We can blame complacent government, rapacious mine owners, and prancing politicians. We cannot blame the miners, even though we are now taught that safety is a personal responsibility and the company has but to provide the means for us to work safely. All too often a social and/or political system turns a blind eye to conditions in which even the most committed worker cannot work safely. Indeed some mines should just be shut down and abandoned. Some mines will never be able to be operated safely. But there will always remain a great number where management action or inaction, regulatory pressure or complicity will make for safety or negate it.
I propose that in the time it takes to rescue the Chilean miners, every mine should undertake an honest assessment of their practice, shut down, or change. Afterall there is sadly time to do that.