(Adds details on suspension, context)
By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda and Aislinn Laing
SANTIAGO, June 25 (Reuters) - Chilean copper miner Codelco said on Thursday it was suspending refinery and foundry operations at its sprawling Chuquicamata division to prevent further spread of the new coronavirus.
The world's biggest copper miner said in a statement that the measure was "transitory" in nature and aimed at "reducing exposure, reinforcing preventive efforts and controls for the safety and health of people" working in the affected areas of the division.
It said operations would be wound up gradually as shifts come to an end, and involved the temporary standing-down of 400 people, a mix of staffers and contractors. It said minor production and maintenance work would continue at both operations.
Chuquicamata is Codelco's second largest mine after El Teniente and produced just over a quarter of its total output in 2019. The Chuquicamata smelter is the company's, and one of the world’s, largest of its kind.
Codelco said closing its processing operations would allow it to focus on the more critical productive areas of its operation at Chuquicamata. Maintaining these, while observing all existing health protocols, would ensure Chile's key economic motor could keep running, "so that our country can better face this pandemic," it said.
The latest announcement is one in a series by Codelco to try to curb coronavirus infections and ease tensions with unions that have accused the company of not going far enough to protect workers.
At the weekend, Codelco announced that construction work aimed at transforming Chuquicamata from an open cast to underground mine would be suspended, and that it would only operate with personnel from the neighboring town of Calama.
Chile is facing its toughest weeks so far of the pandemic, with 259,064 cases and almost 5,000 deaths - three of them of Codelco workers.
The company said closing its processing operations would allow it to focus on the more critical productive areas of its operation at Chuquicamata.
Both the first and third Codelco workers to die after contracting the coronavirus were at different areas of Chuquicamata division. The third, reported on Wednesday in an internal Codelco memo seen by Reuters, was at the division's foundry.
The company said the worker had contracted the virus outside of work, but Chile´s Federation of Copper Workers, which groups Codelco unions, said he was infected at work. It denounced Codelco´s management of the crisis as "incompetent" and demanded an investigation into the man´s death. (Reporting by Aislinn Laing Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)