Yesterday's tragic mining accident in western Turkey, which left at least 245 workers dead and more than 100 still trapped, has again put a spotlight on the country's spotty workplace safety record and the halting steps to improve it.
As the Hurriyet Daily News reports, Turkey's mining industry has one of the world's highest fatality rates:
More than 3,000 people have been killed in mining accidents across Turkey since 1941, mostly due to fires, landslide or explosions.
A report from 2010 stated that the number of deaths in mine accidents in Turkey outnumbers those in the world’s biggest coal producers, the Unites States and China, in terms of fatalities per ton.
Figures show the country is much more dangerous than any country for a miner, even than China, which has the largest number of coal-mining fatalities in any country.
Although the number of miners killed in accidents is far higher in China, the number of deaths per ton of coal production in China was seven times lower than Turkey in 2008, according to a mining sector overview report published by the Economy Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) in 2010.
“While the number of deaths per million ton of coal production is 7.22 in Turkey, it stood at 1.27 in China and 0.02 in the United States in the same year,” the report said, citing official data obtained from the country’s related agencies.
The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) last year actually submitted in parliament a motion to investigate conditions at the Soma coal mine where yesterday's accident occurred, although members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) voted to take the motion off parliament's agenda. Also writing in the Hurriyet Daily News, the newspaper's editor, Murat Yetkin, points out that Turkey's energy minister, Taner Yildiz, visited the Soma mine nine months ago and praised its safety record (despite the fact that workers had been dying at a slow but steady rate at the mine since 2011). As Yetkin also points out, the mine's owner in a 2012 interview boasted that he had managed to significantly reduce the cost of getting coal out of the ground by hiring subcontractors rather than unionized workers and by having certain equipment that was previously being imported now be built locally, such as transformers. According to early reports, it was the explosion of a transformer that set off a chain reaction that led to the Soma mine being filled with suffocating gases.
Ankara did introduce revised workplace safety regulations two years ago that were an effort to put Turkey's rules in line with European standards, but critics point out that it has yet to sign on to the 19-year-old International Labor Organization's (ILO) Convention on Security and Health in Mines.
While the horrific Soma accident should spur Turkey towards improving its mining safety record, the country's deeply polarized politics could very well keep that from happening. Combative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, already on the defensive after last year's Gezi Park protests, initially downplayed the enormity of the Soma tragedy, telling reporters, "Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It's not like these don't happen elsewhere in the world." The PM further went on to list major mining accidents that have happened in other countries, some of the them dating back to the 19th century. Not surprisingly, Erdogan's visit today to Soma was received with loud protests, so much so that the PM at one point had to duck into a local supermarket for safety.
This latest Turkish mining accident, which may prove to be the country's worst ever, deserves to be fully investigated so that whatever lessons learned can be applied so that the next tragedy can be avoided. For Turkey's divisive politics and the AKP's reflexive defensiveness to keep that from happening will only make what is already a great tragedy an even greater one.