Turkey is a dangerous place for miners—but there are worse places to dig underground

Mourning at a miner’s monument in Turkey.
Mourning at a miner’s monument in Turkey.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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An explosion in a Turkish coal mine is expected to be the largest disaster in the country’s history, with at least 232 workers reported dead. The country’s miners union says it’s time for a long-overdue upgrade of mining safety standards, which have suffered as the country has rushed to meet its burgeoning demand for electricity—Turkey is the seventh-largest producer of coal in the world, and also the thirteenth-largest importer of the carbon fuel.

A search through the International Labor Organization’s databases confirms that Turkey is one of the most dangerous places for miners to work. Here’s a sampling of the economies listed:

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But this list doesn’t tell the whole story. It turns out most countries that are major coal producers, notably China and India, don’t share comparable data on occupational safety. When China last reported on the number of deaths in its mining industry, it was 1997—when 3,273 people died. The next largest that year was India, with 242 deaths. Indonesia, another major coal producer, reported 276 deaths in 1999, its most recent tally.

Obviously, these are populous countries with lots of mines, so you’d expect fatalities there to skew higher, but those numbers are so much higher that they reflect a lack of attention to safety standards. China is notoriously lax, with some sources suggesting almost half of industrial deaths there occur in mines.

Coal mining is a particularly dangerous profession, and it has historically been intertwined with labor reform efforts—in the United States, the United Mine Workers produced a number of important labor leaders, including the top union boss in the US, AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka. Besides wages and benefits, much of the agitating has been for safer working conditions. Already in Turkey, the ruling AKP party and its President Tayyip Erdogan are being blamed for ignoring safety violations at the mine facing the disaster.

In 1995, the ILO wrote a convention on mine safety with requirements for safety inspections, adequate ventilation and emergency supplies, and the collection of safety data. Neither Turkey, nor India, nor China have ratified it.