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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Chile mine rescue 'a wake-up call for safety

With all the trapped Chilean miners now free, attention is turning to the long-term impact of the disaster on a country that is more often associated with the excesses of the Pinochet regime.

Rescuers hoisted the last of the 33 trapped miners to safety today after a two-month underground ordeal as millions watched around the globe

President Sebastian Pinera delayed a trip to Europe to stay at the San Jose gold and copper mine in the northern Atacama Desert so he could be on hand to greet every rescued miner.

Opinion polls suggest Mr Pinera is now the most popular politician in Chile, but his new-found popularity masks endemic problems in the country's mining industry.

Chile is not a signatory to the main international mining safety accords and almost 50 miners died in accidents last year.

The country is home to just 1 per cent of the world's mine workers, but notches up 8 per cent of the fatal accidents.

Mr Pinera says the latest accident should never have happened and that industry-wide problems should be addressed.

"That's one of the lessons that we have to take, because at the end of the day in Chile we have a lot of mining companies - big companies which are very good in terms of safety," he said.

"But small companies like this one, they didn't really, they didn't take care, good care of their workers.

"And this mine should have never been acting or working in the conditions they were, because there were no safety conditions to protect the lives."

Mr Pinera has been backed by Juan Somavia, the director-general of the UN agency International Labour Organisation and a Chilean national.

Mr Somavia has described the rescue of the 33 miners as a wake-up call on health and safety issues.

"Security at work is a very major problem in the world," he said.

"And fortunately in Chile we were able to deal with this tragedy. But it's not always the case worldwide and for the International Labour Organisation that I lead this is a very crucial message that we have to heed."

Some of the families of the rescued miners are planning to sue the owners of the San Jose mine and safety authorities. The government may also be in the legal firing line.

The mine itself was originally opened in 1889 and has a long history of accidents that have killed and seriously injured many miners in recent years.

Mario Sepulveda, the second miner to reach the surface yesterday, has already spoken out about mine and industrial safety in Chile.

"This country must understand once and for all that we can make changes, that many changes have to be made. We can't stay as we are," he said.

"I think that business people have to help so changes can be made as to workers. Things cannot stay the way they are."

Pinochet past

One of the main anchors on Chile's national television station TVN, Amaro Gomez-Pablos, says the world still associates Chile with Pinochet.

The late Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, when 3,000 people died in political violence and tens of thousands were tortured or exiled.

"Worldwide whenever you travel to any country immediately you say the word 'Chile' and it's associated with Pinochet. I think this will be a page-turner," Mr Gomez-Pablos said.

"We'll flip the page over worldwide in terms that Chile will no longer be associated [with that]. The rescue effort of these 33 men has also meant the death of an icon that was always typically associated with this country."

The president agrees.

"I hope that from now on, when people around the world hear the word Chile, they will not remember the coup d'etat or the dictatorship," he said.

"They will remember what we've done, all the Chileans together.

"Because, here all the Chileans are united, committed with this rescue effort. And that's an example for the whole world."

In the meantime, the 33 rescued miners will be locked away from the public for the next two days. Then they will emerge as heroes.


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