MAC: Mines and Communities

Court Orders Codelco To Compensate Workers Suffering From Silicosis

Published by MAC on 2009-08-25

Codelco Slapped with US$15 Million fine

A Valparaiso court this week ordered state-owned copper mining company CODELCO to pay US$15 million in compensation to 171 former mine workers from its Andean Division. The workers developed silicosis as a result of inhaling siliceous particles in the underground mine.
The verdict notwithstanding, the 171 sick workers and the families of three workers who died say they will appeal to the decision and demand US$170 million from the company. CODELCO will also appeal, arguing it always put the health of its workers first.

The plaintiffs - a group of former miners represented by lawyers Juan Carvacho, Gaspar Rivas, and Manuel Pinto - proved to the court that for decades they were exposed to a concentration of silica dust well over limits stipulated in the 2006 Sanitary Conditions and Basic Environments in Places of Work (D.S. No. 594) regulation.

Silicosis is a lung disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust, abundant in most underground mines. It develops slowly, so that someone exposed to even the smallest quantities may only start displaying symptoms 10 or 20 years later.

On entering the lungs, the silica can cause breathing difficulties, fatigue, loss of appetite, fever and coughing, sometimes with blood. There is no cure, and the disease usually ends in severe physical disability or death.

According to the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO), 37 percent of miners in Latin America have silicosis due to exposure to the toxic particles they inhale at work. “They all acquired silicosis in the underground mine of the Andean Division,” said attorney Carvacho. “The US$15 million amount is to be divided proportionally between the plaintiffs.”

He explained the compensation money would be awarded according to the seriousness of the disease and disability in each party. For example, workers whosecapacity to work had decreased by 25 percent due to silicosis will receive US$55,000, those with a 50 percent grade of disability will receive US$110,000, and those with advanced silicosis, with a 70 percent or higher grade of disability, will receive US$184,000.

In the three cases where the plaintiff workers died, US$37,000 will be awarded to the surviving spouse and US$18,000 to each child.

Applying these criteria to the plaintiff’s cases will leave 30 plaintiffs without compensation. “We have always abided by the law and done everything we could to protect the health of our workers,” insisted CODELCO before the ruling was announced. “Safety measures and knowledge about the disease have been changing over time. But the measures we use at work are very efficient.”

CODELCO also noted that - together with the Chilean Institute of Public Health – it keeps constant tabs on silica levels and the presence of the disease in their workers.

All CODELCO workers undergo regular medical examinations to test for silica exposure and if a worker has the disease, they are transferred to another area, CODELCO said. The company also claims it has installed a dust collection system and modern ventilation equipment to improve working conditions in its mines.

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