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article imageA Miner's Life Counts For Little In Donetsk

By Stefan Vos     Sep 16, 2000 in Technology
Donetsk, Ukraine (dpa) - The pit foreman tears open the door to the winding tower. A gust of wind blows Pyotr Sakharov and his men into a gloomy corridor.
It is dark. The lights are broken, and the miners on the early shift have to feel their way to the distribution point to collect helmet, pit lamps and breathing apparatus.
A few steps further on giant ventilators roar, sucking in the fresh air and blowing it through the labyrinth of the colliery in the Donetsk basin in eastern Ukraine, one of the world's largest coal mining regions.
When in winter the heating breaks down the pitmen know they are in danger of catching pneumonia despite the warmth of the earth below.
"Hold on tight," pit foreman Sakharov shouts. The rickety two- storey lift rushes down into the deep, the miners feeling the pressure rising in their ears.
Sakharov has worked for 20 years at the Yushnodonbasskaya-1 mine. The 41-year-old pit foreman comes from a mining family. His great grandfather worked in the Donetsk basin.
After two uncertain minutes the open steel lift stops and an iron flap is lifted to allow the miners out.
"Welcome to Ukrainian coal mining," Sakharov says.
In the murky light of the shining pit lamps one of Europe's most dangerous workplaces can be seen extending into the distance.
Five hundred metres below ground men wearing rough cotton jackets balance on crumbling wooden boards. Every step over mud and debris has to be taken with great care.
The pitmen wear thin rubber boots. Stronger footwear - boots with steel tips and ankle protectors - are available, but are uncomfortable.
"You won't get far wearing these down here," one miner says.
Every year there are more than 25,000 coal mining accidents in the former Soviet republic. On average one miner dies every day.
This year alone there have been more than 200 fatalities. The causes of deaths have included asphyxiation, burns, and being buried under or struck by rockfalls.
There are many reasons for the high fatality rates. At the Donbass coal mining area the concentration of methane gas is high and a build up of the gas can lead to explosions.
The bankrupt mining industry does not have the money to invest in modern safety technology. To meet energy demands the state allows its miners to dig for coal at depths of 1,200 metres.
"A human life doesn't count for much here," remarked a mining adviser on the often chaotic conditions underground.
With every move, the breathing gear dangles on the miner's body. A relict from Soviet time, the apparatus is as large and as heavy as a two-litre bottle of Cola and every step is a reminder of its uncomfortable presence.
"Many of the miners simply leave the thing on the ground," said one miner. Recently three miners at the coal face died because they were unable to find their breathing gear after an accident.
Sakharov makes his to a broken cutting machine. He has to bend down low over the last 50 metres of the breast-high longwall. After a few adjustments he manages to get the machine working again.
With elemental force the machine munches its away through the coal seam. The rockface shudders. "Turn away," the foreman cries, and the workers take cover as the roaring contraption hurls out lumps of coal.
The most common cause of accidents is simply carelessness by miners.
"Some miners who are too tired to walk sit themselves down on the conveyor belt," said one miner.
Others hang on to coal waggons and are often hit by falling lumps of coal.
"There is no discipline in the pit," complained one colliery manager.
First-aid nurse Elena sits in a little corner next to the main excavation stretch and says: "Everyone of us down here has seen workmates die."
It is something nobody likes to talk about. On this particular day Elena has fortunately only had to deal with headaches and toothaches.
"Every day before my shift I pray to God that nothing will happen," she says.
In the Soviet Union miners were the heroes, and were paid well.
"We used to get 600 roubles a month," Sakharov recalls.
That was five times more than a teacher earned. But with the economic demise of independent Ukraine came hard times for the miners. Many have been waiting months for their full pay.
The workers who go down below seem to leave their fear of accidents behind in the locker room above ground.
Only towards the end of their shifts do the pitmen appear to be a little more agitated. Almost 100 men are pushing and shoving to get into the lift to take them away from the coal face. There is much shouting and swearing.
"This is the lung calling," says the lift attendant.
It appears that even the hardest of the Ukrainian miners finds it hard to bear the last few minutes of his six-hour shift without a cigarette.
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