|Gleision colliery in 2008 – notice wooden tunnel props|
Responding to the four deaths at Gleision drift mine at Cilybebyll, South Wales last week, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have launched a joint investigation with the police. Their report is expected to be months away, however it is already clear that the deaths – like so many in the UK and around the world – can be attributed to the supremacy of the profit motive over the needs of working class people.
Charles Breslin (62), Phillip Hill (45), Garry Jenkins (39) and David Powell (50) all died on Thursday 15th, when the mine they were working in was flooded. A wall holding back gallons of filthy rainwater apparently gave way, and the route to the surface – some ninety metres up – was cut off. Three miners just about managed to escape, including David Powell’s twenty-six-year-old son, Daniel.
According to a family friend:
“All Daniel kept saying afterwards was that it isn’t safe down there. The family want to see the pit shut down for good – they don’t want anyone else to go through the nightmare they have suffered over the last few days. The pit was constantly filling with water – it was a constant battle to keep it pumped out so the men could go down there.”
If there is to be a serious inquiry, questions must be asked about how the men were permitted to work in such obviously dangerous circumstances. But the answers to those questions are systematic – and will undoubtedly prove too much for the highly compromised HSE.
Gleision has been opened, closed and then re-opened several times over the past decade, with the fluctuating price of anthracite – the type of coal mined at the colliery – an important factor. The current owner – Gerald Ward – was prosecuted for passing off sub-standard coal as anthracite in 2002, but this was not enough to disqualify him from owning collieries and selling coal.
The law states that mining should not take place within forty-five metres in any direction of a layer of rock containing water. This was clearly not adhered to at Gleision, yet the HSE gave it a clean bill of health on 17th May 2010, and were not due to make another visit until later this year. The Daily Mail claims that:
“The four miners who died in a flooded Welsh colliery may have been working in an underground extension which was given planning consent last year. They are believed to have pierced an old, unknown chamber—flooded from weeks of heavy rainfall—causing tons of water to engulf them.”
|The Gleision deaths were far from the first in Welsh mining|
In other words, the miners died because they were mining an area which was unmapped, and was bearing the weight of a wet summer’s rainfall. That this could happen in 2011 – with all the technology potentially at our disposal – is staggering.
Yet it is not surprising. Since Thatcher carried out her assault on UK miners in the 1980s, conditions in the few remaining UK collieries have returned to levels not seen since the nationalisation of the mines in the 1940s. As local ex-miner Dai Thomas told the Wales on Sunday: “There was no such thing as health and safety for these boys. It is not viable to take coal out of these small mines without cutting corners.”
Every year, around two hundred workers are killed on the job in the UK alone. Though these deaths are normally written of as ‘accidents’, in reality almost all result from a lack of appropriate health and safety measures, and – in the final analysis – from the relentless drive for profit. The Health and Safety Executive has never been truly ‘independent’, but year after year of funding cuts have left it devastated and toothless. Against the ruling class bluster about overreaching health and safety ‘red tape’, improving workplace safety will have to be an important priority for a new workers’ movement.