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Deadly mining pit accidents: Inquiry unearths negligence, poor regulatory oversight, bad pit construction, no insurance for miners

Top officials in the mining sector during a visit to Pepper Creek, Konawaruk where 10 miners in May, 2015 after a gold mining pit caved in.

An inquiry has found that deadly mining pit collapses have been due to negligence in digging pits and that regulatory agencies like the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission are too weak to uncover breaches in technical and Occupational Safety and Health laws.

“The principal causes of the pit failure accidents were a result of a neglect of safe mining practices. The Committee Of Inquiry (COI) has determined that mine operators were aware that they were operating in a high-hazard environment, but did not ensure that health and safety measures were properly managed. This situation represents clear acts of negligence,” states the report, sections of which were seen by Demerara Waves Online News.

Sections of the report were disclosed Friday at the Annual General Meeting of the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA). 

Apart from negligence and a lax culture towards Occupational Safety and Health, the COI identified several other factors that contribute to deadly mining pit accidents. These include worker inexperience, lack of training at all levels, lack of technical inputs, a “chasing gold” mentality and corruption. “A task force is required to address these issues in a comprehensive way.”

The government-appointed probe-team recommends in the “Inquiry Mining Pit Collapse Report” dated August 4, 2015 that all mine operators be trained or competent in Occupational Safety and Health Standards.

With numerous deaths and little compensation to survivors other than financing funeral expenses, the Committee of Inquiry recommended that employers provide insurance coverage for workers.

“Family and dependent issues, especially after an accident, need to be addressed. It is the view of the COI that the sector should have access to Liability Insurance or a compensatory mechanism with clear guidelines for implementation,” states the report.  Figures show that 25 persons have been died in 16 accidents from June 2014 to June 2015, with 18 of them due to pit failures where miners have been buried alive in the mines. President David Granger order the probe following the death of 10 miners in a collapsed mining pit in May of this year.

The Commissioners- Grantley Waldrond, Jo Bayah, Colin Sparman and Gary Hall- found that the majority of mining pit collapses  was due to the failure of mine operators to follow the prescribed guidelines in digging the pits to minimize the chances of a tragedy especially during the rainy season when the soil is more unstable.

The probe team finds that all pit failure accidents have been a result of a mine faces collapsing and covering workers in an active pit. “This has happened because of the absence of controls to make a mine-face safe in relation to miners washing ore to a sump for pumping to a process box  (the sluice box),” states the report.

The three-member team adds that “Shortcuts have been taken to extract ore to a pile in the pit, wash it to a sump and recover gold quickly. “The required safety practices with respect to overburden removal, proper mining bench delineation to isolate a mining block, have been absent. As well, proper entry into and egress out of the mine have been absent, making it virtually impossible to safely escape when there is danger,” the document states.

The Committee Of Inquiry (COI) has determined that all such cases have involved steep and high mine faces with poor benching or no benches. “On occasion, these situations have been made worse when operators are reworking tailings that were placed in an old pit. Once solid retaining walls are breached, there is no restraining of loose unconsolidated wet slurry type materials,” according to the report.

The Committee of Inquiry finds that the GGMC and other regulatory agencies are virtually paralysed to find occupational safety and health breaches at gold mining operations and enforce the laws and regulations.  “The regulatory agencies in the cases examined – Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) in particular – did not have the focus, capacity and/or strategy to ensure that the operations are meeting their legal responsibilities under accepted health and safety laws and guidelines and the requirements of the Mining Act. Urgent institutional strengthening is imperative!,” the inquiry found.

The team of investigators suggested that the laws or regulations should provide for workers to actively participate in the management of health and safety initiatives as a prerequisite. “It is necessary that all participants in the sector are actively engaged and certified with basic health and safety training on an annual basis – this could easily be tied to the granting of mining privileges.

 Of note, too, was the fact that miners are never briefed by their bosses about the findings and recommendations of post-collapse investigations. “No clear protocol is in place for dealing with post-accident issues including a ‘terms of resumption of work’. The evidence suggests that most operators have gone back to work  after accidents without clear indications of what the GGMC and other agencies expect of  them. A clear post-accident protocol developed by the regulator must be part of the investigation and closure arrangement,” states the report.

Administrative Manager of the GGDMA, Colin Sparman told miners that often regulatory agencies do not know about mining accidents until they are reported by news entities such as Demerara Waves Online News.

Minister responsible for Natural Resources and the Environment, Raphael Trotman has said he would be meeting with stakeholders next week to discuss the report.