On 25 February two blasts, an hour apart, ripped through the Severnaya mine at Vorkuta, Russia. These explosions killed four miners and collapsed tunnels, trapping 26 people 2,450ft below ground. Three days later, five rescuers and a miner from the site were killed in a secondary explosion, which led Russian authorities to declare hope lost of recovering the remaining 26 miners alive. This brought the total Vorkuta death toll to 36, making it the worst coal mining disaster since the Raspadskaya explosion in 2010, which killed 91 people.
According to Russian authorities, 'natural causes' were responsible for the accident at Vorkuta; a sudden release of methane which was then ignited, probably by a spark from one of the cutters. In other words, the authorities were claiming the accident could not have been prevented. However, the proportion of accidents of this type and on this scale over the last decade, compared with other coal-producing nations, points to a larger problem within the Russian coal mining sector.
Phoenix Mining Consultant's managing director John Warwick, who also played a part in the accident investigation of Raspadskaya mine in 2010, says there are conclusions to be drawn by comparing previous Russian coal mine accidents to Vorkuta. "If you look at the initial explosions, in all four cases, and I'm reading from the press on [Vorkuta], it's the ignition of methane that has accumulated in a waste area behind the face, and that ignition of methane has propagated into a coal dust explosion," he says.
A source close to the Russian coal mining community with contacts at Vorkutagol - the subsidiary of Severalstal which operates Vorkuta - agrees, saying "I would say 85% of the cases happen for similar reasons". The initial methane explosion is dangerous, but should the heat it creates ignite coal dust in the area, the resulting explosion will spread further and more ferociously, dramatically reducing the number of survivors.
Common practice in coal mining
The Vorkuta explosion bears striking similarities to previous mining accidents at Ulyanovskaya (2007, 110 deaths), Raspadskaya (2010, 91 deaths), and Vorkutinskaya (2013, 19 deaths), where gas levels recorded in the mine and transmitted above ground showed no anomaly in methane levels. Since the Vorkuta incident, speculation has been rife on how this could have happened. A daughter of one of the miners killed in the explosion told The Interpreter - a website dedicated to translating Russian news and documents into English - that her father and his colleagues were instructed to suppress methane gauges so miners could continue to dig.
Our source, who for his own safety wished not to be named, says this is common practice. "What the miners normally do, they put [methane gauges] on the ground," he says. Methane is lighter than air and so if near the roof the concentration is 3%, (an explosive level), on the ground it can be at the safe level of 1%.
"If things become worse than that at ground level, miners then move the detectors away from the mining site. This results in normal readings on the surface. This is why during the investigation, the staff upstairs produced perfectly clear legitimate readings...but there is no way to check where the detectors are located. This is one of the standard practices."
This claim is strongly refuted by Severalstal chairman of the board, Aleksei Mordashov, who said the gauges are sealed and impossible to break into. As the mine was flooded to put out the fire, the truth of his statement is unlikely to be known.
The methane issue at Vorkuta was further exacerbated by an earlier collapse of the ventilation roadway with 300m of excavation to go, according to our source. They say that the company was reluctant to restore the tunnel for the remaining coal, but didn't want to close down the operation. The collapsed tunnel could not have provided adequate ventilation.
The presence of coal dust was another factor in all of the accidents referenced by John Warwick. By limiting the amount of coal dust in an area, or neutralising it, the severity of any methane explosion can be curtailed significantly.
Keeping Russian miners safe: what improvements should be made?
Methane and coal dust are natural products of coal mining. Methane that is contained in the coal is released as the coal is mined, or can leak out through cracks created by the mining process. How a coal mine monitors and reduces the methane content in the air is therefore critical to the safety of workers.
Warwick explains that the methane gas problem is better addressed by changing the way the mine is ventilated, particularly with regard to preventing secondary explosions, like the one that killed the rescuers at Vorkuta. Most mines across the world are ventilated by the exhaust method, sucking air around the mine.
Instead, Russian legislation recommends the forcing method, pushing air through the mine. This is problematic when a gas explosion propagates into a coal dust explosion. "What happens then is you lose the standard ventilation system of the mine," says Warwick. "Those areas which are gas laden and pressurised then release gas into the main area into contact with existing fires," causing another explosion.
This is an issue Warwick raised back in 2011 with the investigation commission for the Raspadskaya disaster, and the deputy secretary of the Duma, Russia's parliament, responsible for labour safety. Exhaust ventilation lowers the risk of explosion because it operates below atmospheric pressure, causing the gas to exit the mine in the air stream. Despite Warwick's recommendations, the Duma is yet to change legislation on mine ventilation.
Another improvement that has begun to be implemented in some Russian mines is the installation of appropriate methane drainage. Even so, Warwick claims they "spend a lot of money putting the systems in, but they don't necessarily drill holes in the right position, where the gas is." Staff need appropriate training to use technology designed for safety correctly and Russian mining companies need to invest in this training.
Although methane is often the initial cause of an explosion in a coal mine, the coal dust blast that can follow is the most prolific killer. "A coal dust explosion is like being in the barrel of a gun, the blast goes a very long way, sending heavy objects flying like matchboxes," says our source.
However, there are precautions that can be taken to suppress loose coal dust and prevent it from gathering in areas it shouldn't. The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends regularly spreading limestone powder, or rock dust, throughout the mine. This rock dust renders the coal dust inert when applied in the correct proportions.
Another common solution is to use plenty of water to dampen the coal dust, both at the face and the cross-sections of conveyor-belts using a sprinkler system. At the face, the water reduces the chance of sparking, and on the conveyor, the water reduces the chance of the dust rising into the air from walls, floors and conveyors and setting alight.
Unfortunately, the problems with Russian coal mines are not just technical issues to be fixed by investing in the latest equipment and training; the deeper issue is caused by the way miners are paid.
Pay per hour, not per tonne produced
It's obvious to most observers. Miners wouldn't tamper with monitors or go to work in a space they know is unsafe unless they felt it was a necessity. In mines across Russia, working in these conditions is a necessity.
Warwick argues that the principle of incentivisation based on production is not inherently a bad thing; however, "the difference is that if you don't do the production then normally there is a fall-back position which gives you an amount of money to enable you to live at a reasonable standard," he says. "This doesn't apply to all mining companies, but with some of them it is 'if you don't do it, you don't get paid'."
Our source agrees. "There is a set amount you are supposed to produce and if you don't, you lose your bonus," they say. "That can be as high as 50% of your income." When half of their income is at stake, miners are willing to take risks that fairly paid ones would not, and when KPIs based on production dominate the chain of command, there is nowhere for miners to voice concerns. "It goes all the way through the line organisation from the top to the bottom", he explains.
Couldn't miners just walk away from such a dangerous job? At Vorkuta and many other mines across Russia, the staff comes from the local village where the mine provides the sole source of income. In the words of our source: "You either work in the mine or you are unemployed. If you don't like the way things are conducted there you are free to go, to starve to death, you and your family. People are left with no choice."
This situation has been born out of rigorous cost-cutting measures by Russian mining companies trying to keep their heads above water in a time of strict sanctions against their nation and a long-term economic downturn. With no investment from outside Russia, companies are not subject to the same scrutiny as other coal miners globally. Our source says: "Severalstal, the owner of the Vorkuta mine, for years have been known for being extremely aggressive on cutting costs. Cutting the number of people and expenditure...There is a whole array of incentives for a number of people underground and above the ground to take risks."
It's also about engaging, educating and encouraging the workforce. Construction companies in the UK have learnt in recent years that an engaged and healthy workforce is safer and more productive. Russian mining companies need to see that a focus on the welfare of their workers can be a benefit to their businesses.
Progress, or for show?
Warwick is confident that progress is being made and the momentum for the Vorkuta accident will spur some movement, as other mines have improved operations after serious accidents. In his capacity as a competent persons reporter for the stock exchange he examines Russian mines.
"I have visited mines after the explosions. They [the operators] understand the point and are trying to make certain areas exhaust ventilated rather than forcing," he says. "The monitoring systems have also vastly improved in all the mines I have visited since Raspadskaya and those monitoring systems have certainly been installed throughout the Everaz mines."
Is this focus on safety only occurring at each individual mine after an accident with fatalities? The Russian Government needs to look at the prevalence of accidents and introduce regulation and legislation to speed up the culture change which began after the Raspadskaya accident, and help smaller mining companies to institute the necessary changes.
Our source is sceptical that the government wants to help alleviate the situation. They do, however, concede that the bigger players in the Russian coal mining market are making improvements, saying that "companies like SUEK, the largest Russian coal mining company, are spending a significant amount of money on safety hardware". Can these leaders in the sector share learning with competitors in the interests of safety, like other coal miners do across the world?
Our source isn't convinced. "I am losing hope this will ever change, the trend is not encouraging."