(Updates with additional worker death from COVID-19 at Teniente.)
SANTIAGO, July 4 (Reuters) – ChileÂ´s state-run Codelco said on Saturday it would temporarily halt construction on a new level at its flagship El Teniente mine, a move it said was necessary to combat the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic.
World top copper producer Codelco said in a statement the measure would bring the total reduction in staff at its Teniente operations to 4,500 people. The mine will continue to operate with a previously announced shift schedule of 14 days on and 14 days off to protect workers, the company said.
“This (measure) began to be implemented last weekend,” Codelco said, adding the move was aimed at “reducing the density of both our own and contract staff, scaling back movement and reducing the possibility of infection.”
The decision comes as the Federation of Copper Workers (FTC), an umbrella group for CodelcoÂ´s unions, announced a contract worker at El Teniente had died of COVID-19, the sixth death from the disease at the companyÂ´s operations.
Unions say at least 2,300 of CodelcoÂ´s workers have been infected with the virus since the outbreak began in mid-March.
The coronavirus outbreak caught Codelco in the midst of a 10-year, $40 billion dollar initiative to upgrade its aging mines. The El Teniente project would extend the working life of the century-old mine, located in the Andes Mountains south of the capital Santiago.
Unions and social groups have ratcheted up pressure on Codelco and other miners to beef up protections for workers, including a proposal this week to close mines north of Teniente, in the Antofagasta region, for two weeks.
Codelco CEO Octavio Araneda said in an interview with local media on Thursday that any such move would be “catastrophic” for the country. He defended the companyÂ´s virus response as proactive.
The company said it would continue with planning and preparations for the Teniente expansion despite the setbacks. Peak construction is expected in 2021 and 2022, the statement said.
El Teniente produced 459,744 tonnes of copper in 2019. (Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by David Gregorio and Chizu Nomiyama)