November 12, 2006

Coal-Mine Massacres

By any standard, this is a stunning report:
Almost every single one of the 320 workers killed in U.S. coal mines in the last decade didn’t have to die, according to a six-month investigation of coal mine safety in America.

Nearly nine of every 10 fatal coal-mining accidents in the last decade could have been avoided if existing regulations had been followed, according to a Sunday Gazette-Mail study of MSHA reports.
But I guess it's not surprising. Coal mine operators have no incentive at all to follow "existing regulations," because they face only minor penalties if they fail to do so. Both OSHA and its mining counterpart, MSHA, are notoriously lax: In 2003, a New York Times investigation found that OSHA declined to seek criminal prosecution in more than 93 percent of cases, between 1982 and 2002, in which a worker died due to a "willful" violation of an OSHA standard. Manslaughter, one might say. At least 70 employers who got off scot-free then violated the standards again, resulting in even more worker deaths. Willie Horton had nothing on these folks.

So instead, the regulatory agencies hand out fines. A fine here. A fine there. The maximum fine levied by OSHA or MSHA comes to about $70,000. In practice most penalties are much, much smaller. Sago Mine, where 13 miners died in an explosion last year, had had 273 violations on the books. $100 per fine, on average. A pittance. Coal mine operators don't even need to bother following safety rules—it's cheaper to pay the fine. About 6,000 workers die in workplace accidents each year—presumably a large portion of employers in those cases decide it's cheaper to pay the fine, too. And the agencies are understaffed anyway. Can't catch everything.

In the old days, coal miners could strike if workplace standards weren't being enforced. Then—if I'm not mistaken—the Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that courts could enjoin workers who walked out of the job because of unsafe working conditions. They had to go to "arbitration," which is about as effective as it sounds. So now it's up to a few hapless agencies in Washington to handle worker safety. Pay no attention to the fact that the White House has repeatedly tried to cut MSHA's budget, put a top coal executive in charge of the agency, and withdrawn seventeen mining safety standards since 2001.

And it's funny, over 90 percent of Americans favor "enforcing workplace safety and health regulations." You can't get 90 percent of Americans to agree on anything. But they agree on this. Yet the Bush administration made the repeal of OSHA's ergonomics standards one of its first orders of business after ascending the throne in 2001. How'd they get away with it? Probably because most people don't have a clue what OSHA even is, and without a healthy labor movement, there's not really a focused voice in favor of ergonomic standards. That's my guess.
-- Brad Plumer 6:24 PM || ||