SOMA/ISTANBUL/LONDON: Taner Yildirim was never surprised when safety inspectors turned up at the Soma mine in eastern Turkey, where 301 miners were killed this month just weeks after inspectors gave it a clean bill of health. He said he always had plenty of warning.
"They (management) tell us about a few weeks prior to the inspection; so we get ready," the miner, who wasn't working on the day of the disaster, told Reuters.
Even then, he said there was no need to go to too much trouble to prepare for the visit.
"All the inspections I have seen are on paper. They are 'office-based' inspections. The plant managers and the inspectors are hand in hand and drink tea at the managers' office," said Yildirim, who has worked at the mine for 13 years.
The Labour Minister could not be reached directly, but his ministry, which is primarily responsible for regulating mine safety, declined to comment.
The governing AK Party has said the mine had been inspected 11 times over the past five years, sometimes unannounced, and denied there were loopholes in mining safety regulations.
The government is currently investigating the cause of the Soma disaster, so it is not yet clear if flaws in the safety regime contributed to the deaths.
Soma Mining, the company that operated the mine, has denied any negligence but has not responded to questions from Reuters on its dealings with safety inspectors.
Erkan Tas, 34, a miner in another of the mines run by Soma Mining, said perfunctory inspections were the norm.
"They do go down inside the mine, but then the management does not really show them the problematic areas. They don't let them wander around; it's a controlled inspection. They show them the parts of the mine which are in good shape," he said.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government has been the focus of protests in the wake of the disaster, which followed a string of smaller fatal mine accidents, from demonstrators angry at what they see as a failure to ensure work safety standards.
Turkish mining experts said the country's rules and guidelines are not as extensive as some other countries. Turkey does not even have a specific set of safety regulations for the coal industry, said Dr. H. Sebnem Düzgün, a professor with the mining engineering department of Middle East Technical University in Ankara.
When asked about mining safety regulations, Turkish officials pointed to the 2013 Statute on Work Health and Safety, which covers all sectors, not just mining.
The government says its guidelines follow European Union rules.
The EU law in question, a 1992 directive covering underground mineral-extracting industries, is a document of only around 20 pages, which contains some basic requirements and broad principles that individual EU countries then use to set detailed regulations and guidelines.
Britain, for example, has hundreds of pages of additional rules and guidelines covering coal mines.
A senior official from the Turkish Labour Ministry said in addition to the 2013 Statute, which is a document of around 25 pages, a number of other regulations also set guidelines that apply to coal mines.
He said where specific guidelines were not present, a broad requirement that mine operators manage risks to make workplaces safe - set out in the 2013 statute - meant companies were effectively obliged to adopt best practice.
There are also concerns that inspectors could be compromised by hospitality received from the mining companies.
"Friends who do inspections have told me that they are given travel allowances by companies," said Necdet Pamir, an instructor on energy policy at Ankara's Bilkent University and the chairman of the opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) energy commission.
"A week or 10 days in advance, the inspectors call up the boss or the manager in charge and say, 'Hey, we're coming, send us our plane tickets.' They travel by plane, are picked up at the airport, stay in the most suitable hotel, their meals and drinks are paid for, and the inspection is just a show," he added.
However, an official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that inspectors shied away from filing damaging reports.
"The inspectors closed down coal mines 224 times since 2010 and levied 1 million lira ($475,800) in fines. How could you expect those inspectors to travel or be accommodated at the companies' expense," the official said, though he added that it was impossible for him to know if there were exceptional cases when expenses were paid by the companies.
Turkish miners and mine experts said inspectors were not strict enough, citing as evidence the report produced by mine inspectors after a visit to the Soma mine in late March.
"There were no shortcomings identified at the workplace," according to a page of the report published on news site T24.
A government source confirmed the accuracy of the document published on T24 and said although the full report had some additional pages, these only included technical details about matters such as staffing levels, rather than risk assessments.
The two inspectors who signed the report were not available for comment. They are under investigation as part of inquiries into the disaster, a regional Labour Ministry official said.
Experts said the inspection report, instead of just drawing a conclusion that there were no shortcomings, should ideally list the risks at the mine and assess the measures the mine operators had implemented to manage such risks.
"You would want to record what you found and that it was as expected," said Andrew Watson, of Mines Rescue Service Ltd, the UK's formerly state inspection body, who conducts safety inspections across the world. "You would want to explain why you were making the statement that the mine was safe." ($1 = 2.1018 Turkish Liras)