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Soma Mine Disaster: Health and Safety in Coal Mining

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 4259 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Soma Mine Disaster

Intermediate Chemical Process Safety


Soma Mine Disaster is one of the worst mining accidents in the modern history. In this report we discuss the coal mine processes with a brief introduction to the different processes used in coal mining. This report also discusses the statistics of coal production and the fatalities in coal mining industry in the US. Mine Safety and Health Administration standards are used to assess the accident occurred at the Soma Mine facility. The main cause for the explosion and the regulations that were violated and led to the accident are discussed in the report. The disaster was examined against the pillars of safety standards which is a very efficient way to assess the disaster and highlight the sources that led to the massive disaster. The economic, social, and political factors were noted in the preparedness for and response to the disaster by the company.



Coal mining is the process of extraction of coal from the ground. Coal has high energy content. Coal energy density is almost equal to that of gasoline (1). It has high energy content so it is used to generate electricity, since 1800s. The history of coal mining goes back to thousands of years. Coal played an important role in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries. During this period coal was primarily used to power steam engines, generate electricity and heat buildings. Coal remains as an important energy source because of its low cost and abundance compared to other fuels (2). Large – scale coal mining developed during the industrial revolution i.e from 18th century to the early1950s. Colliery is the word generally used to refer to an underground coal mine.

Methods of extraction

The most economical and feasible method for extraction of coal depends on the depth of coal mine, quality of coal seams, Environment factors and the geology of the mine. Surface mining and underground mining are the two basic methods of coal mining. Coal that occurs at depths of 180 to 300 feet (55 to 90 m) are usually deep mined, but in some cases surface mining techniques can be used. For example, some western U.S. coal that occur at depths in excess of 200 feet (60 m) are mined by the open pit methods, due to thickness of the seam 60–90 feet (20–25 meters). Coals occurring below 300 feet (90 m) are usually deep mined, for instance soma mine in Turkey. [3] However, there are open pit mining operations working on coal seams up to 1,000–1,500 feet (300–460 meters) below ground level.

Surface Mining

Surface mining is used when the coal seams are near the surface. Surface mining accounts for 67 percent of the US production. Globally about 40 percent of coal production uses this method. [4] There are usually three types of surface mining techniques used they are strip mining, contour mining and mountaintop removal mining

Strip mining is a type of mining in which coal seams are exposed to surface by removing the earth above them. The earth is referred to as over burden and is removed in long strips. All of this earth removed is dumped in an area outside the mining area and it is called as out–of–pit dumping. Explosives are often used to remove this overburden. The life of a strip mine lasts around 50 years. [5]

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Contour mining is similar to that of strip mining. In this the overburden is excavated from a large trench using heavy earthmoving equipment in order to expose the coal seams or ore body. Once the coal is extracted from the trench it is backfilled and a new trench is dug beside it. This process is repeated until the ore is exhausted from the mine site. This method is also called the bench method. It is usually used in areas with hilly or mountain terrain.

Mountain top coal mining is a surface mining practice involving removal of mountain tops to expose coal seams. Overburden associated with coal seams are dumped in the adjacent valleys. This method usually leaves the hill tops and ridges as flattened plateaus.

Underground Mining

Most of the coal seams are present underground and surface mining cannot be used to extract these coal seams. Underground mining is required to extract coal from this type of coal seams. Underground mining accounts for about 60 percent of the world coal production. [4] There are three main methods for underground coal mining: Room–and–pillar mining, Retreat mining and long wall mining.

Long wall mining accounts for 50 percent of underground production. It involves the full extraction of coal from a section of the seam, or face using mechanical shearers. Long wall shearer is a sophisticated machine with a rotating drum that moves mechanically back and forth across a wide coal seam. The loosened coal falls onto an armored chain conveyor or pan line that takes the coal to the conveyor belt for removal from the work area. The coal face can vary in length from 100-350 m. Longwall systems have their own hydraulic roof supports which advance with the machine as mining progresses. As the longwall mining equipment moves forward, overlying rock that is no longer supported by coal is allowed to fall behind the operation in a controlled manner. The supports make possible high levels of production and safety. Sensors detect how much coal remains in the seam while robotic controls enhance efficiency. Longwall systems allow a 60-to-100 percent coal recovery rate when surrounding geology allows their use. Once the coal is removed, usually 75 percent of the section, the roof is allowed to collapse in a safe manner. [4]

In Room–and–pillar mining, coal deposits are mined by cutting a network of ‘rooms’ into the coal seam and leaving behind ‘pillars’ of coal to support the roof of the mine. These pillars can be up to 40 percent of the total coal in the seam-although this coal can be recovered at a later stage.

Retreat mining is often the final stage of room and pillar mining. Once a deposit has been exhausted using this method, the pillars that were left behind initially are removed, or “pulled”, retreating back towards the mine’s entrance. After the pillars are removed, the roof (or back) is allowed to collapse behind the mining area. Retreat mining is a particularly dangerous form of mining. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), pillar recovery mining has been historically responsible for 25% of American coal mining deaths caused by failures of the roof or walls, even though it represents only 10% of the coal mining industry. [6]

         Figure 1 Coal Production Trends in Top 5 coal producing countries in the world.

Historically, coal mining has been a very dangerous activity and the list of historical coal mining disasters is a long one. In the US alone, more than 100,000 coal miners were killed in accidents in the twentieth century, [7] most of these fatalities occurring in the first half of the century. This has led to the formation of Mine Safety Health Administration in 1977, to reduce the frequency and severity of nonfatal accidents, to minimize health hazards, and to promote improved safety and health conditions in the US mines. Fig 2 shows us the MSHA fatalities caused due to different equipment in the US. Fig 3 gives us the MSHA statistics for fatalities by state in the US.

Figure 2 Coal Daily Fatality Report till Oct 2018. [8]

Figure 3 MSHA Coal Mining Fatalities by state. [9]

Improvements in mining methods, hazardous gas monitoring like electronic gas monitors, gas drainage, ventilation and electrical equipment have reduced many of the risks and explosion in the coal mines in the recent years. But, still coal mine accidents can be catastrophic, one such example is ‘Soma Coal Mine Disaster’. Soma coal mine or Eynez Coal mine situated near the town of Soma in the Manisa province Turkey. This mine has coal reserves amounting to 125.5 million tons of lignite, one of the largest coal reserves in Asia and the world. On May 13 2014, an explosion occurred at the mine caused due to underground mine fire which burned until May 15 and took the lives of 301 workers. It is said to be the worst mine disaster in Turkey’s history.


According to International Labor Organization (ILO) and WHO, Occupational accidents are defined as unplanned occurrences, often resulting in personal injuries; damages to machines, tools, and equipment, and halting to production for a while.  Approximately 2.3 million workers die each year worldwide, 350,000 because of occupational accidents and around 2 million because of occupational diseases (10).  In Turkey, an occupational accident happens every 7 min, an employee loses his life every 11 h, and an employee is disabled every 6 h (10).  According to the 2012 statistics of the Social Security Institution (SGK), most occupational accidents and diseases occur in the coal and lignite extraction business (8,828 occupational accidents, 231 occupational diseases) (11).  In coal mining, most frequent accidents are the ones related to collapses, pit fires, firedamp and coal dust explosions, haulage and mechanization.  Economic, social, and political factors can also greatly affect the overall stability of a working environment. 

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In the 1980’s coal production was shifting from the expensive Europe labor force to the cheaper Asia-Oceanic line.  In Turkey, the state paved the way for privatization of many state-owned enterprises operating coal fields.  The General Mine Workers union organized a march of tens of thousands of colliers at the Zonguldak coalfield which became known as the Great Mining March of 1990-1991.  The march stopped the direct privatization of the THA (Turkish hard coal authority).(12)  Some coal mines are privatized with the royalty system. A company will bid to rent a coal source and pay a royalty price per kW/hour produced.(18)  The highest royalty rate earns the coal field. Soma Holding leases the Soma coal mine with the royalty system.  The disaster of 2014 was both caused and inflated by shortcuts and negligence on the part of the Soma Holding. Soma holding is operated by “sub-employers,” who in turn work through a “gangmaster.”  The gangmasters contract workers by the job.  This in turn leads to competition, a lack of collegiality and division of labor.  Working conditions get worse and layoffs become possible lowering the work experience and general working knowledge of the mining group.  Along with direct cuts to occupational training and OSHA requirements, sub-employer companies will operate illegal pits with blatant disregard for worker safety in the interest of profit.  The owner of Soma holdings bragged of a reduction of 80% of the cost to produce a ton of coal.  Figure 4 shows the cost of production increase to be near 50% for the rest of the world.  Where did the reduction of cost actually come from?

Figure 4 Production cost of coal increase

 Through the years, Soma coal mine has been under three authorities (13). The first one was Turkish Coal Enterprises which is a state-owned company. Soma mine was under the control of Turkish Coal Enterprises in the period between 1990 and 2006. The second authority was Park Teknik A.Ş., which was a private operational company that agreed to operate the mine for ten years from 2006. Surprisingly, after three years the company decided to break the contract because of technical difficulties in the mine. After Park Teknik A.Ş had canceled the contract, Soma Coal Enterprises A.Ş. took over the operation in 2009. In the last period which started in 2009, coal was transported inside and outside the mine using, predominantly, conventional and semi-mechanized methods which are conveyor belt. The difference between the two methods are the type of structural support they use. The semi-mechanized method used a hydraulic support while the conventional method used wooden structure.

Accident Time Line 

On the afternoon of the 13th of May 2014, a blast occurred near the control unit to flatten the surface for the conveyor belt. Consequently, the ceiling collapsed due to the violent vibration and a fire started between 14:40 and 14:45. The wooden piece that support the conventional conveyor belt caught fire. Due to the high concentration of methane gas in the air, the fire spread wildly covering the main hallway of the mine. Simultaneously, the power system shutdown preventing the workers from escaping using the elevators. The smoke covered all the main passageways, so the workers were trapped in the panels. At 17:00, one engineer suggested to change the ventilation direction to clear the smoke from the hallways to allow the rescue team to get inside. His advice was agreed upon and the ventilation direction was changed which led the smoke to go towards the panels and ultimately killed all personnel trapped inside.


Figure 5 the layout of the mine (13)

Root Causes

Soma mine was not inherently safe designed. By going back to the beginning of the incident, blasting the floor to flatten it definitely was not a good idea. The blasting should have been substituted with other techniques, like using the heavy machinery that is usually used in the mining industry. Besides that, the conventional conveyor belts should have been replaced by at least semi-mechanized or fully-mechanized mechanisms. With the growth of the mine underground, the ventilation systems should have been upgraded adequately. The ventilation systems were not sufficient to minimize the carbon monoxide concentration in the accident location. In fact, investigation revealed that the ventilation diagrams did not match with their layout in the mine. Investigation also discovered 67 gas and carbon monoxide sensors, which is not much considering the size of the mine, and most of them were either defective or not well calibrated. (16) 

Safety Analysis

In this industrial establishment the four pillars of safety were violated (22). The first pillar, which is committing to process safety, was violated by everybody from the workers to the stakeholders. The workers were lacking the safety culture and that is shown by the blasting of the floor in an environment full of methane gas which is highly flammable (13). Also, it seemed that most workers and engineers were not aware or didn’t care about hazard identification and risk analysis; by that the second pillar was violated (14). Furthermore, the third pillar was also violated because the mine was not following safety procedures, managing the contractors and assessing integrity and reliability. According to the Engineering & Mining Journal (E&MJ), security system records were obtained. Despite dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and high temperatures, workers kept working. Moreover, investigation discovered a mismatch between the safety records and the reading from the sensors. It appeared that the safety report was fabricated and some of them were copied from the previous reports (16). The fourth pillar is learning from experience, but clearly Soma Mine had not learned from history and others’ experiences. Fig. 3 shows how much Turkey contributes to the number of accidents and fatalities to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries’ statistics. The number of accidents and fatalities related to coal mining in Turkey have not changed since 1990 which is an evidence of not learning from experience (17). In fact, a study was done by the International Labour Organization (ILO) showed that after 2008 Turkey was the country with highest mining incident rate (18). This statistic included the legal registered deaths. Another source discovered that private contractors tend to employ people illegally, like unexperienced and underage people, to lower the costs (19). Most of the accidents are happening because the lack the necessary experience and those accidents, including deaths, were not registered because they were employed illegally.

Figure 6 Methane NFPA rating (15)

Lesson Learned

According to the investigator, this disaster was preventable. Mines are confined spaces underground, so taking the extra precautions is a must. To prevent such accidents in the future, each step, process or modification in the mine needs to be assessed thoroughly to ensure that it is inherently safe. This assessment will focus on minimizing the risk, substituting the hazardous elements, moderating the hazardous environment and simplifying the process. Furthermore, the newest technology in mining industry should be required in all mines around the globe. These technologies include a fully computerized interconnected system that link every sensor, machine and employee to one computer which can be operated by a central control room (CCR) (20). Companies should employ only the best and most experienced to the position of leader and supervisor. These positions require a special set of skills that help the people who filled them to decide what to do in the case of emergency (21). These people should also be familiar with new technologies and computerized systems which can help them immensely in making the right decision. Because mines are a dynamic environment, due to the expansion in space with time, necessary upgrades must be installed in the new regions of the mines like the ventilation system. If the ventilation system in Soma was adequate, the 301 victims could have been saved. Moreover, the best quality equipment and safety technologies should be used to save the workers. The workers lives should not be compromised by cutting costs. The most important element of this case is the workers. Workers in the mine should have whatever they need from food, facilities, sufficient safety equipment, and urgent medical care. The workers should be in outstanding physical and psychological state to work in the mines because high focus and attention are required in this perilous job (21).

Figure 7 Coal mines accidents and fatalities from OECD countries database (17)


In conclusion, organizations like OSHA are trying their best to prevent the accident from happening because accidents can be prevented easily if people were aware of their surroundings and what could go wrong. There are some managers who are willing to compromise their workforce’s safety in order to minimize costs. In all mine operations the managers and supervisors should be looking out for the safety and protection of all workers unlike the managers of the Soma Mine who were willing to compromise more than 300 workers’ lives and were ultimately sent to prison for their reckless mistakes.  A critical safety roles have been violated which led to a massive accident. There was no safety culture in that environment and most of the workforce did not commit to safety rules. Moreover, no one was following up on the safety report and assessing the integrity of the workplace and its equipment. Furthermore, a completed hazard and risk analysis would have prevented the severity of the disaster. Turkey has the highest percentage of coal mine accidents but it seemed that nobody is really taking care and learn from others’ mistakes.


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