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Quarry workers cling to cliffs for life in northern Vietnam

Sunday, September 06, 2020, 10:24 GMT+7
Quarry workers cling to cliffs for life in northern Vietnam
The quarry operated by Hoang Anh Co. in Dien Bien Province, Vietnam is where 28-year-old Hang A So and two of his colleagues got killed at work on June 1, 2020. Photo: Tam Le / Tuoi Tre

Many poor men have risked their lives toiling at quarries dotting northern and north-central provinces in Vietnam for a self-sufficient living or for rock to build a small house for their families, but not all of them return.

Over recent years, newly built houses have sprouted up atop the rocky areas in the northern provinces of Dien Bien, Hoa Binh, and Ha Nam and the north-central province of Thanh Hoa.

However, work remains unfinished in many other abodes as their owners, including many from ethnic minority groups, never return following fatal accidents at quarries scattered across the areas.

The deceased victims, along with others who survive the blasts with severe injuries and life-long disabilities, are workers at the quarries, trying to scrounge up a living or stones to build or fix their humble homes. 

As the breadwinners of their families, the men’s deaths plunge their wives and young children into immense financial difficulty and a deep emotional void. 

Very few quarry workers can reach retirement even if they are fortunate enough not to be involved in accidents, as the occupational hazards they are constantly exposed to may take a toll on their health.

Lurking perils

The highly perilous job offers the quarry workers good pay yet exposes them to a situation in which health and safety are considered trade-offs.

Still, they brave the harsh conditions and try to pull through for their wives and kids at home.

Many have lost their fingers or feet to the accidents but several others are not that fortunate.

One of the latest deadly incidents occurred in Dien Bien Province, around 450 kilometers to the west of Hanoi, on June 1.

Three workers were preparing to detonate explosives when they went off without warning after being hit by a lightning strike.

One was hurled afar, while another was buried under rocks. The trio died on the spot, but their bodies were not recovered until almost one week later.

Among the deceased victims was Hang A So, a 28-year-old member of the Mong minority residing in Pu Long Hamlet, snuggled in Pu Nhi Commune, Dien Bien Dong District in Dien Bien Province.

With the hamlet yet to connect to the national grid and few night activities available, most villagers generally go to bed as early as 8:00 pm.

Under the cloak of darkness, the dwelling of So’s widow, Cu Thi Tung, gave out dim light.

She recently got access to electricity by installing a makeshift wire that connects to the power grid to keep out the cold and fill the void left by her husband’s death.

“My husband died in the accident on his tenth day at work. At first I didn’t let him go, but he said he would pull through one month for some money to fix our house,” Tung said, trying to hold back tears.

With her husband’s upper torso seriously deformed in the blast, the woman could only recognize him by his hands, the warmth of which she had been in love with.

So and Tung share two children, aged ten and seven. So had worked hard for five years to fetch enough wood to build their current house, but his dream to renovate it would never be fulfilled.

According to Hang A Dinh, the hamlet chief, grave occupational hazards have put villagers off the job despite handsome monthly salaries averaging more than VND10 million (US$430), a desirable income for many locals.

Some villagers were killed on the job at quarries in Na U Commune, Dien Bien District last year, he revealed.

More than three weeks after the accident that killed the three, including So, in Na U Commune, the quarry’s developer, Hoang Anh Co., is yet to resume operations. 

Three other quarries nearby, by contrast, were bursting with commotion, rumbles from stone grinding machines and bulldozers, as well as deafening noises of explosions, shrouding the area in thick clouds of dust.

Some workers were dangling themselves over treacherous cliffs to drill into the rock wall in seeming defiance of the hovering threats. 

In mid-June, two more men became victims after they fell off the cliffs while drilling at a height of 100 meters to their death in two separate incidents. 

Nineteen-year-old Tran Van Thanh, a local resident, was killed on June 17 at a rock mine operated by CP 99 Construction Materials JSC in the north-central province of Nghe An.

One week later, on June 24, Nguyen Van Thuy, a 37-year-old worker from Hanoi, also perished while working at Minh Tien Quarry, snuggled in the northern province of Lang Son. The quarry is operated by An Son Construction and Commerce Co. 

It was not the first time that fatal accidents had happened at these two quarries.

Most quarry laborers are well aware of the perils posed but try to shrug them off to earn a living.

The quarry operated by Hoang Anh Co. in Dien Bien Province, Vietnam is where 28-year-old Hang A So and two of his colleagues got killed at work on June 1, 2020. Photo: Tam Le / Tuoi Tre

The quarry operated by Hoang Anh Co. in Dien Bien Province, Vietnam is where 28-year-old Hang A So and two of his colleagues got killed at work on June 1, 2020. Photo: Tam Le / Tuoi Tre

Poor compliance of safety procedures 

Despite getting licensed to operate the quarries where fatal accidents occurred, most developers have failed to comply with safety procedures.

In reality, however, cliffs typically tower treacherously instead of being carved into layers, with some even plagued by intense concavity.

Trails to the mountain peaks are not properly built either, leaving quarry laborers making their way to the mountaintop by dangling themselves precariously against the cliffs with both of their hands full of tools.

According to a veteran quarry driller in northern Hoa Binh Province, such trails, if built, are generally unusable, giving him and his colleagues no choice but to scale up the rock walls on ropes.

These hazards are not to be taken for granted by quarry workers and miners who have flocked to the areas to eke out a living. 

Dozens of similar quarries that are currently in operation can be found on a section of Ho Chi Minh Trail that runs through Hoa Binh Province.   

At Kien Khe Quarry in northern Ha Nam Province and Yen Lam Quarry in Thanh Hoa, apart from ropes, iron staircases erected against the cliffs can be used by workers to make their way upward.

Unlike their colleagues in other localities who build highly concave mines, workers at quarries across Thanh Hoa generally dig a sewer-like pit which penetrates ten meters into the rock walls.

Workers will stumble into the pits to plant explosives.

Causes of fatal quarry accidents are varied. Nguyen Ngoc Duong, a seasoned quarry foreman in Hoa Binh Province, puts the tragic incidents down to rockslides, triggered by loose rocks or rocks left over from previous rockslides.

Rainwater gushing into new rock cracks might also result in rockslides, he added.

Workers might slip on cliffs that are not cut into layers properly while scaling up the mountains or drilling into the rock walls.

They might also end up buried alive by tumbling rocks while scooping them at the mountain foot.  

According to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper’s rough estimate, at least 17 fatal accidents have occurred at quarries in Luong Son District, Hoa Binh Province since 2017.

Most of the victims are young men who leave behind families in dire straits.

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Ngoc Hanh - Tam Le - Vu Tuan / Tuoi Tre News

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