Coal Mines and Safety

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This mining accident in West Virginia is, needless to say, a serious tragedy. Even more appalling is the Washington Post‘s report today that the coal mine in question, Sago Mine, had previously been cited some 273 times by the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration for safety violations, a third of those “significant and substantial.” 42 workers and contractors have been injured there since 2000. So why didn’t the mine operators heed MSHA’s warnings, or try to fix things? Ah, here we go:

The mine is contesting some of the violations, while agreeing to pay more than $24,000 in penalties to settle others.

Right: Sago Mine, on average, paid out less than $100 per violation. That’s not enforcement. That’s not even a slap on the wrist. The mine just folded that $24,000 into the cost of doing business—paying a nominal fee for “significant and substantial” safety violations is presumably cheaper than actually fixing the safety problems in question.

Meanwhile, over the past five years the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been seriously weakened. According to the AFL-CIO’s 2005 Death on the Job report, the White House’s FY2006 budget proposed a $4.9 million cut for MSHA in real dollar terms, and proposed budget freezes for MSHA enforcement programs. Since President Bush took office in 2001, seventeen MSHA safety standards for miners have been withdrawn, including the Air Quality, Chemical Substances and Respiratory standard. And from 2001 to 2004, the top job at MSHA was held by David Lauriski, a coal industry executive, who seemed, shall we say, less than interested in investigating problems. (See this 2002 Mother Jones story for more.)

Obviously those cuts, freezes, and appointments didn’t cause the West Virginia accident. It’s not like this is the president’s “fault”. And, although the statistics are sometimes murky, mine fatalities have decreased over the past few years, so MSHA’s not a total failure.

But the larger picture is the thing to look at. Sago Mine isn’t the only workplace accident that’s ever occurred. According to BLS, in 2003 there were 5,703 workplace deaths, up from 5,575 in 2003, up from 5,534 in 2002, and so on. At the same time, Labor Department inspections have been declining, as budget cuts do their work, and fines for violations are getting lighter and lighter. According to the AFL-CIO, in 2004 “serious” violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act incurred an average fine of only $873. Quite predictably, these trends are all going to converge on very severe accidents where people die, and it would be nice if we could deal with them beforehand, rather than react after the fact.

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