Leading Article: Mine safety comes first

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WHEN George Orwell made his famous journey down a coal-mine, he was appalled by the arduous conditions and long hours that British miners then took for granted. Two generations after the 1937 publication of The Road to Wigan Pier, miners still merit our respect. The safety record of the mining industry may have improved beyond recognition; new technology may have made the toil less back-breaking. But digging for coal remains a uniquely unpleasant and perilous job. The first public response to Wednesday's accident at Bilsthorpe colliery, therefore, should be sympathy for the families of the three men killed and esteem for the survivors. The second should be to investigate what went wrong, and to try to reduce the chance of its happening again.

Given the degree to which the coal industry has been a political issue, it is not surprising that the Health and Safety Executive's investigation of the Nottinghamshire accident has already been beset by controversy. The accident has exposed tensions not only between miners and their employers at British Coal, but also between miners and pit deputies, and between the two unions vying with each other for the allegiance of mineworkers.

Facts and emotion must necessarily entwine so soon after the accident. But there is no evidence that proper safety procedures were ignored in the hours and minutes before the roof of the new Parkgate seam fell in. Nor is there evidence that the modern method of 'rock-bolting' - using steel mesh, rods and resin to support a tunnel underground - is less safe than the use of old-fashioned steel girders which preceded it. It is for the HSE inquiry to establish what happened; only hotheads would wish to jump in with unsubstantiated claims that prejudge the inquiry's outcome.

Yet the accident has come at a sensitive time, for the whole system of mine safety is undergoing changes greater than anything seen for a generation. Until now, mineworkers and managers have had to follow detailed rules laid down in the Mines and Quarries Act 1954, which give pit deputies special responsibility for safety. From the beginning of October, much of that will be swept away: common arrangements will apply to coal and other sorts of mines, in which mine managers and owners must be better informed and more active in looking after safety.

The new rules have given rise to controversy, for they make the members of Nacods, the pit deputies' union, less important than they used to be. Under the old system, it was hard to open a mine without the agreement of the deputies, and this relatively small union thus occupied a strategic place in the industrial relations of the coal industry. With the industry in the process of privatisation, it is understandable that the Government should be seeking to lessen the deputies' power, and equally understandable that the deputies should resist.

Yet the new regulations, laid before Parliament on 6 August, pose no apparent threat to mineworkers' safety. Regular inspections should make sure that owners and managers do their jobs properly; they will be liable to legal sanctions if they do not. Given the inherent precariousness of mining, safety must always be a concern. But that does not mean mining techniques or management must stand still. Without continued improvements in efficiency, the question of safety will cease to arise - because Britain's coal industry will no longer exist.