Source AP ©

Workers at Mexico's largest copper mine exposed to health and safety hazards

Mexico's largest copper mine is not safe for health: dangerously high levels of mineral dust and acid mist.

Representatives of Mexico's National Mining and Metal Workers Union, who released the report at a news conference on Monday, say they are prepared to strike until Grupo Mexico SAB agrees to conduct a "massive cleanup operation" and implement programs to train miners and protect their safety. The union said it is sending the report to President Felipe Calderon and is demanding that the government order Grupo Mexico to take corrective actions.

About 1,300 workers went on strike July 30 to protest health and safety conditions at the open-pit Cananea copper mine 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the Arizona border in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora.

A telephone call left with Grupo Mexico seeking comment Monday was not immediately returned.

In the past, the company has said it is willing to negotiate health and safety issues to end the strike. Union leaders on Monday claimed the company has been unwilling to tackle the issues, but has instead tried to discredit the union.

A U.S. pulmonary specialist, two Mexican doctors and three industrial hygienists compiled the report after visiting the mine and interviewing and examining the lungs of 68 workers between Oct. 5-8, said the coordinator of the all-volunteer group, Garrett Brown.

The report found "a serious lack of preventive maintenance, failure to repair equipment and correct visible safety hazards, and a conspicuous lack of basic housekeeping."

Because of that, it said, "workers have been exposed to high levels of toxic dusts and acid mists, operate malfunctioning and poorly maintained equipment and work in simply dangerous surroundings."

"In 16 years of inspecting mines in the U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, Indonesia and China, I have never seen a place - operated by a transnational corporation with so many resources - that has such bad conditions," Brown said.

The report alleges that the company dismantled dust collectors in the mine's processing plants two years ago, leaving workers exposed to 10 times more "respirable quartz silica" than what Mexican law allows.

The study also alleges that workers were exposed to hazardous levels of sulfuric acid mist in plants where lead sheets are plated with copper ore.

The mist "is so concentrated it's eating away the steel structure of the buildings," Brown said. "You literally have piles of dust 2 to 3 feet (0.6 meters to 0.9 meters) high all over the processing plants."

Dr. Robert Cohen, a pulmonary specialist at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, said the medical team found a high prevalence of early signs of respiratory disease among the 68 workers.

The United Steelworkers and the Mexican miners union have worked together for several years to protest alleged health and safety violations by transnational companies, including Grupo Mexico, that employ workers on both sides of the border. The USW paid for the travel of the volunteer experts who wrote the report.

Grupo Mexico has been scrutinized intensively since 65 miners were killed in the February 2006 explosion of its Pasta de Conchos coal mine in northern Coahuila state, 135 kilometers (85 miles) southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas.