Working In These Times
New Arizona Law Allows 12-Hour Mining Shifts Underground
A note to readers: This and other recent Working In These Times articles by Kari Lydersen are drawn from her reporting for a forthcoming book on the history and resurgence of hard rock mining in Arizona and the Great Lakes region.
SUPERIOR, ARIZ.—On March 21, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill that will allow miners to work 12-hour rather than 8-hour shifts underground and removes language from the preamble of a state law designating underground mining as "injurious to health and dangerous to life and limb of those employed."
The bill (SB 1054) was pushed by members of the Arizona Mining Association, including Resolution Copper, the Rio Tinto subsidiary trying to open a massive new underground copper mine near the town of Superior 60 miles from Phoenix. Some former miners in Superior last week said the bill is a bad idea, since even with the latest technology they think underground mining is still a grueling, high-risk job that should be limited to 8-hour shifts underground.
"Would you want to spend 12 hours underground in the damp, dark, dangerous conditions?" asked retired miner Orlando Perea, who has worked in underground and open pit mines for decades.
Resolution Copper spokesman Bruce Richardson said the changed law reflects the modern nature of mining, which is much more automated and safer than in the past. He said 12-hour shifts are more efficient and preferable for the company and for workers since they reduce time spent each week commuting and preparing to go underground. He said the law would affect about 90 workers currently on the Superior-area project, employed by Resolution and contractors.
Richardson told me:
Our workers are paid "collar to collar," meaning they’re basically on the clock from the time they walk into the change room to get ready for their shift until they’ve changed out of their work clothes at the end of the day. So workers are getting paid for changing clothes and being transported in the shaft to and from their work station.
That’s obviously necessary, but it’s also not very productive. By lengthening out shift times, the time spent changing clothes and being transported is reduced in the aggregate and the time spent actually mining is increased, which makes a mine more efficient, productive and competitive. Workers like it because it means less time overall spent commuting and being away from home.
He added that, "The 12-hour shift length is consistent with laws that many other Western states have also adopted in recent years, including Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Alaska and Idaho."
Most mines in Arizona these days are open pit surface operations that remove huge swaths of ore with low concentrations of copper, as opposed to the underground mines of the past where miners tunneled to follow high-concentration veins of the metal. So the new bill will affect only a small portion of the state’s miners.
But Resolution’s proposed new mine is an exception, an underground operation using a relatively rare method called "block caving" that Resolution says is the only "economical" way to tap the massive copper deposit. It involves cutting a network of tunnels with conveyor systems below the ore body – in this case about 9,000 feet down – and then blasting the ore body so that it crumbles into the tunnels. It causes subsidence (collapse or caving in) of the land above, as a huge amount of ore and rock is removed without being replaced.
Once the network of tunnels and shafts are built, block caving involves relatively few miners actually working underground – underground jobs would be mostly maintenance. Removing the "injurious" and "dangerous" language from the preamble to the law was necessary to make the change in hours allowed underground, according to media reports.
Richardson said the language change has no other effect on actual working conditions or regulatory conditions in the state, and said it is appropriate since mining injury rates are actually lower than those for construction and other industries.
Richardson told me:
In fact, in the 10 years since the law was changed in Utah, lost time incidents at our (Rio Tinto subsidiary) Kennecott operations have trended downward. This is not to suggest there’s a correlation between longer hours and lower incident rates, but it certainly points out there’s no correlation between longer shifts and increased incidents.
Though injury rates in mining are indeed lower than many other industries, the dramatic and frequent nature of accidents in the past still figure prominently in miners’ consciousness.
When Perea and other former miners in Superior get together, they often start discussing the accidents that claimed their fellow miners’ lives over the years, ticking off the names and rehashing the situations. During my visit last week, Perea and his friends remembered an accident in the early 1990s that claimed four lives at the Magma Mine in Superior.
"One hundred tons of muck fell on them from 70 feet up. They had no chance," said Perea, who was on the scene. "It wasn’t a pretty site. It stays with you." He and other miners also talked about the men killed shortly before the Magma Mine shut down the first time in 1982, including the foreman "Spaghetti Joe." Perea told me:
There were about 30 people killed in this mine. Those safety rules were written in blood. Basically someone had to be hurt or killed before they did anything" to improve safety.
Laws and procedures implemented after tragic accidents and hard-fought union battles along with modern technology have greatly changed the industry, making it far less dangerous than in decades past, according to proponents.
But accidents still happen. Last year, the cousin of Roy Chavez, a retired Superior miner and former mayor ardently opposed to the new mine, was seriously injured when rocks and debris fell on him from above as he worked, for a contractor, in a shaft for the new Resolution mine.
Arizona’s state laws have long been seen as highly favorable to mining, one of the state’s main industries going back a century or more. Mining watchdogs complain that the state laws governing air emissions, land use, water use and other aspects of mining do little to protect public health and quality of life. For example, mining operations are exempt from laws limiting groundwater use and can pump an unlimited amount.
(Resolution has said it will nonetheless buy rights to and "bank"water from the Central Arizona Project, which comes from the Colorado River, to compensate for the groundwater it uses).
The Sierra Club and other groups are asking members to oppose several proposed Arizona state laws regarding mining and water and land use. One bill, SB 1287, would exempt mining operations, including their piles of waste rock, from permitting related to contamination of drinking water aquifers.
As for the bill related to underground shift lengths, Richardson said the company has been working with state legislators for about a year. He said there are no immediate plans to lengthen shifts to 12 hours, but some will be lengthened to 10 hours and the company wants the legal flexibility for longer shifts.
"Safety considerations will ultimately drive what we will do," he said.