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Workers and Safety in Southern New Mexico Mining

By Jamie Bronstein, Ph.D.

The economy of New Mexico has long centered on the state’s natural resources: empty spaces that can be used for military testing, vast tracts suitable for ranchland, natural features that attract tourists, and the extractive industries. While the benefits, for a relatively poor state, of oil and natural gas, coal and copper, uranium and potash, were tangible, the toll that these industries extracted from workers in terms of health and safety was less visible. In return for a regular wage and benefits, New Mexico miners exposed themselves to substantial risks that were slow to be subjected to federal oversight.

Some of the travails of mine workers in northern New Mexico have been documented. Until production in New Mexico’s coal mines declined in the mid-twentieth-century, mines experienced explosions that wiped out hundreds of lives.[1] The story of the Navajo uranium miners of the Northwestern part of the state, who were exposed to life-shortening radiation and found their communities despoiled by the mining process, is still unfolding.[2] Nevertheless, even in mines that were supposed to be safer or cleaner—copper, zinc and potash, classified as the “metal and non-metal mines” and located in Grant and Eddy counties—workers faced dangers in the workplace and obstacles to effective government response.

In New Mexico’s underground copper, zinc, and potash mines, companies employed many of the methods used in mining coal. At every step of the mining and milling process, possibilities existed for death and injury. In any mine, injury accidents outnumbered fatal accidents by a huge ratio.[3] For example, at one potash mine for which accident records exist, there were more than ten lost-time injury accident for every fatality. 

What potentially fatal dangers lay in wait for the miner? In underground metal mines, roof falls were the central occupational hazard.[4]  Workers were also killed by getting caught in the moving parts of machinery, in elevators and around elevator shafts.[5] Blasting led to some of the more horrific, multi-victim accidents.[6] Moving vehicles underground, and electrocution also claimed lives.[7]

In all, over the period for which the New Mexico State Mine Inspector’s records are available (1933-74), 110 fatal accidents were recorded for Southern New Mexico mines. In the Silver City area mines the greatest concentration of fatal accidents occurred in the years between 1949 and 1954, when there were a total of twenty-six fatalities out of the forty that would occur over four decades. In fact, after 1956, it was normal to have one fatality or no fatalities each year. In contrast, the Carlsbad mines reported no fatalities until 1948; but then the number of fatalities remained steadily higher than that in the Silver City mines: eight fatalities between 1959 and 1961, six in 1964-5, six in 1966-7, and six in 1972-4. Between 1948 and 1974, the Carlsbad potash mines recorded fifty-four fatalities.[8] Although the cost of workplace fatalities to companies rose over the twentieth century, the proportion of loss borne by a worker and his family remained completely disproportionate to that borne by the mining companies.[9] The families of workers killed on the job were eligible for workers’ compensation, but the damages paid amounted only to a fraction of the worker’s current wage stretched over a discrete period of time. This formula did not account for the period a worker might be expected to live, or for a worker’s upward mobility within the organization. The safety issue became a cause of disagreement for Southern New Mexico workers in the 1950s and they pursued it vigorously at the level of the plant, the union local, and through federal action.

Legislation mandating federal inspection was only achieved after a lobbying effort on the part of miners’ unions. The International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter workers was instrumental in conducting this lobbying effort, and the two Southern New Mexico unions, Local 890 (Bayard) and Local 415 (Carlsbad), were active participants, helping to identify the drawbacks of a state-centered inspection regime that did not require the reporting of many kinds of workplace accidents. Local 890, which had figured prominently in the 1951 Empire Zinc strike, was the more successful and active of the two locals. Both the New Mexico State Inspector of Mines, William Hays, and the New Mexico Mining Association, which was the overarching organization of the mine operators, vehemently opposed any shift from a state-based mine inspection and regulation regime to a federal regime. They pointed to their accomplishments in mine safety—many of which, ironically, had been implemented in order to stave off the threat of federal regulation. In the end, Congress devised a cooperative regime in which state inspectors had the first responsibility for investigating workplace accidents, as long as states maintained rigorous mine-safety standards. But had unions not raised the safety issue, the human “toll extracted” by economic development would have remained hidden.

[1]. James Whiteside, Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).

[2]. Christy Roye, “Unleashing Leetso: A Labor History of Navajo Uranium,” M.A Thesis, History Department, New Mexico State University, 2010; Rosanne Boyett, “RECA bill re-introduced - More than Two Decades of Radiation Exposure Legislation,” Cibola County Beacon (Grants, N. Mex.), 14 April 2011.

[3]. Injury accidents are not considered here because for much of the time period under consideration, metal and nonmetal mines were not required to report injury accidents to the State Mine Inspector. The few records that do survive confirm the generalization, however. Between 1948 and 1951, the Carlsbad potash industry, which encompassed multiple companies, experienced a total of five fatal accidents. From the beginning of 1950 through April 1951, a single Carlsbad company, U.S. Potash, reported 56 lost-time accidents, ranging from strained tendons to lacerations and broken digits. Accidents, US Potash Co., 1950-1, Series V, Non-Fatal Mine Accidents, Folder 453, Collection 1965-002, New Mexico State Inspector of Mines Records, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives (SRCA).

[4]. “Injured Potash Miner’s Condition is ‘Serious,’” Carlsbad Daily News-Sun, 29 November, 1974, 2.

[5]. “Injured by Pulley,” Clovis News-Journal, 17 November 1953. See also Series IV, Fatal Accidents, Folder 180, Collection 1965-002, New Mexico State Inspector of Mines Records, SRCA; Fifty-Eighth Annual Report of the State Mine Inspector to the Governor of New Mexico (Albuquerque: Office of the State Inspector of Mines, 1968), 39; Series IV, Fatal Accidents, Folder 133, Elauterio Gonzales, Continental Mine, Fierro N. Mex, 15 May 1948, Collection 1965-002, New Mexico State Inspector of Mines Records, SRCA; “Men Injured at Fierro Mine,” Silver City Daily Press, 13 February 1967, 1.

[6]. Series IV, Fatal Accidents, Folder 124, Melquiades Moreno, Francisco Salas, Lorenzo Moreno and Robert Garcia, March 22, 1947, Collection 1965-002, New Mexico State Inspector of Mines Records, SRCA.

[7]. Fifty-Eighth Annual Report By the State Inspector of Mines to the Governor of New Mexico (Albuquerque: Office of the State Inspector of Mines, 1968), 38; “Mine Accident Kills One,” Roswell Daily Record, 11 January 1987, 22.

[8]. Data aggregated from Series IV, Fatal Accidents, Collection 1965-002, New Mexico State Inspector of Mines Records, SRCA.

[9]. Andrew Hopkins, “For whom does safety pay? The case of major accidents,” Safety Science 32 (1999): 143-153.; Carol Sheppard, “Mine Accidents Incidence Goes Down but Costs Go Up,” American Mining Congress Journal, vol. 69 No. 18 (1983): 20.