Turkish mining in the dock; recent disasters have cast a dark shadow over Turkish mining.

BY Matthias Lomas

Safety in Turkish Mines

November 15, 2018

On May 13th 2014, a tragedy befell Turkey in Soma, 95 km from İzmir on the Aegean Coast. 301 miners died in the Soma mine disaster, most from carbon monoxide poisoning, after a power distribution unit exploded and caused a fire that spread to coal dumped around a transformer. A report into the safety of the mine, which had been lauded as one of Turkey’s safest and more technologically-advanced before the tragedy, found that it was lacking in carbon monoxide detectors, had poorly maintained gas masks and was not properly ventilated. 

The fire was closer to the exit than were most workers when it occurred but hundreds followed emergency instructions when they saw smoke and went deeper into the mine, hoping that oxygen would be pumped to where they were. It was not, and this is what caused most loss of life. “The disaster happened because of poor ventilation resulting from bad mine design. There was one gallery with everything inside it: coal, conveyor, personnel intake and ventilation, all in a 14-m2 tunnel. In our Zonguldak project, for example, these are in separate locations,” remarked Mustafa Bayar, general manager, BAYAR Industrial Services and Plants.

Soma was the worst mining accident in Turkey’s history and the 19th worst globally, with several mining executives now having been convicted for their role in it.  2014 was heavy on the hearts of the whole Turkish mining industry, and it is still upsetting for many today. To add insult to tragedy, in October 2014, 18 miners died when water flooded the Ermenek mine in Karaman province in southern Turkey.

These disasters drew bitter memories of another huge loss of life due to mining in Turkey in 1992. Then the ageing Incirharmani mine in the Zonguldak coal mining area by the Black Sea coast was transformed into a firestorm as methane gas built up rapidly and caused an explosion, leaving 263 dead.


A persistent problem needs urgent answers  

Turkey has long had a poor occupational safety record, including in mining. In 2017, 2006 workers were killed in occupational accidents, 36 more than in 2016, according to the Workers’ Health and Work Safety Assembly (İSİGM), with 93 deaths in mining. The mining deaths figure is exactly the same as the average number of mining deaths from 2000 to 2014 when Soma happened, underlining the challenges in reducing mining deaths.

South Africa had similar instances of mining deaths in 2017, with 82 in the months from January to November, and 73 deaths in 2016 – the lowest on record. However, South Africa has a much larger mining industry than Turkey’s, as well as many underground mines. Therefore, Turkey’s record should be better than South Africa’s. Australia, which also has a much larger mining industry than Turkey, recorded only three mining fatalities in 2017.  

The reasons for this poor record are not entirely certain but it is clear that there was serious negligence in the Soma mining disaster, especially in the areas of safety equipment and ventilation. Also, according to Mehmet Utkan, the Soma mine’s underground safety engineer who was off duty at the time of the accident, non-fireproofed material was used in the electrical system of the mine. Furthermore, the mine had no functional safe rooms and included much manual labor, being only partly mechanized. Only one of the underground galleries had crushing and cutting machines to mine coal, whereas the other three were operated by manual labor.

Regarding the Ermenek mine disaster, an alarm system would have helped to save the lives of the miners, according to a Turkish prosecutor at a court hearing on the tragedy held in 2016. Also, drilling was conducted just three meters from waste water, which flooded the mine, instead of the recommended 25 meters. Furthermore, no documents were found pertaining to worker training, meaning miners did not know what to do when the accident happened.

Most mining accidents happen in coal mines but, with so much of Turkey’s mineral resource deep underground, miners across all minerals are solemnly committed not to repeat disasters like Soma. “In order to ensure safe operations for our underground workers, the furnace is constantly ventilated, and gas measurements are made and recorded by responsible mining engineers at every shift,” said Cansu Çopuroğlu, sales and marketing director at base metals producer Marmotek Madencilik.

The mechanization of some mining activities could also take workers out of harm’s way. Zinc producers Pasinex have semi-mechanized mining in the development and stoping phase of their Pinargozu mine in Adana province.


Unintended consequences

In the aftermath of the Soma and Ermenek accidents, Turkish lawmakers were compelled to introduce a new occupational health and safety law. “After the disaster, health and safety regulations increased a lot. For example, employing a health and safety manager became compulsory and European standard regulations for coal mines were introduced,” said Bayar.

Aligning with European standards has been a positive step, but has added extra cost to mines which are not involved in underground mining. “We have hired specialists in workplace safety who work as external consultants and continuously inspect our mine and production plant,” said Akin Bayazit, sales and marketing manager of Akdeniz Minerals, which does not have underground mines. 

Also, the tightening has caused some mine owners to evade responsibility for accidents, the reverse of what was intended by regulation. “After the accident (Soma) everything changed, including the mining law. For example, board members at mining companies are now responsible for accidents. This has meant mine owners are not putting themselves on boards and foreign investors either do not invest or ensure their domestic partner holds the risk. We are trying to change this aspect of the law,” explained Prof. Dr. Güven Önal, president, Turkish Mining Development Foundation.

Sadly, such behavior will do little to improve Turkey’s mine safety record, and suggests regulations are simply not enough and that they need more careful design. In any case, solutions must come from the industry and companies themselves if the record is to improve.


Rules and training are not enough, a change in culture is needed

An important step to improving mining safety is of course to have proper training and rules in place, as well as good mine design and appropriate use of technology. Many Turkish miners take this extremely seriously, while too many still do not, as the traffic accidents mentioned and statistics show.

Marmotek Madencilik has an advanced approach to occupational safety in its underground mines, as Çopuroğlu explained: “Before all our employees get started, they are provided with the detailed information about the work to be done and undergo occupational orientation (basic education) training. Also, the machines and equipment to be used are introduced, and they are informed about underground mining. PPE (personal protective equipment like helmets, boots, gloves, dust masks, etc.) are given to them in accordance with the work to be done… In case of emergency, there is an emergency path established from the entrance of the quarry to the working areas… Our employees are followed with personnel monitoring systems and the possible negative effects are immediately intervened upon.”

Similarly, Pasinex has a surveillance monitoring system for its underground operations. “Pasinex continuously trains and educates its labor force, has put a safety culture in place, and applies both local and international standards. So far, we have had no fatalities and we hope this will continue. Continual safety awareness is very important, and it is a topic of discussion at the beginning and end of every shift,” explained K. Soner Koldas, country director, Pasinex.

Koldas’ use of the ‘culture’ word is intriguing and chimes with what some of the latest thinking among safety experts. Corrie Pitzer, CEO of SAFEmap International, witnessed numerous mine deaths in South Africa in the early stages of his career when he was an HR manager at a mine. Pitzer recounts the transformative impact visiting the bereaved relatives had on his career and that of his mine manager at the time. “We start with a mantra that a company’s culture will trump its system every time,” said Pitzer, although he acknowledges culture is an elusive concept. “The best way to describe it, is what someone does when no one is looking; they act based on their perceptions of what is required and permissible.”

He also believes that too much discipline can harm the culture of an organization and is wrong-headed because “there is a difference between willful risk taking such as not wearing mandated protective equipment and unintentional mistakes caused by cognitive errors. The former requires discipline, but the problem is that most accidents do not occur in this way throughout willfulness.”

Pitzer acknowledges the importance of systems that can have a huge influence on people’s behaviors but insists they will not have the desired effects without a strong company culture on safety.

It is clear that from Turkey’s tragic mining disasters neither an adequate safety system or appropriate culture has existed among many Turkish companies. “The main principle of our company is that “Nothing is More Important or Urgent Than Work Safety,” remarked Çopuroğlu.

May that become the mantra for the future.


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