Heartbreaking Miners’ Story Reminds Us Not All Workers are Safe

The tragic loss in a West Virginia coal mine of 12 miners last week reminds us that there still are workers in America who risk their lives on a daily basis to produce those things that we cannot live without. Although coal mines, and the workplace in general, are more safe today than in generations past, sacrificing one’s life at work should not be part of anyone’s job description. Accidents happen, employers tell us, but rarely is a workplace death an accident — it is often the result of corners that were cut, rules that were ignored, and even laws that were broken.

Many of us went to bed last Tuesday night thinking a miracle had happened, and that most of the miners trapped after a January 2nd explosion at the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, Wast Virginia, had been found alive. However, we later learned the tragic truth, that erroneous information was conveyed to the waiting families and repeated by the news media (see Baltimore Sun article), and all but one miner (still clinging to life as of this post) were ultimately found dead, most likely of carbon monoxide poisoning. (See CNSNews.com article.) As families at this weekend’s funerals (see Chicago Tribune article) tearfully celebrated the lives of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, the rest of us are left to ponder what went wrong at the Sago Mine.

You might think that working in a mine is one of the least safe work occupations, and you would be right. According to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mining industry has the second-highest fatality rate per 100,000 employees, with 28.3 fatalities per 100,000 workers. Only the agriculture industry (which includes forestry, fishing and hunting) has a higher rate of death on the job, with 30.1 fatalities per 100,000 workers. (See Forbes.com article.)

However, hearing about a mine tragedy is less commonplace than it used to be. For an industry that endured at least 1,000 fatalities a year through the 1930s and ’40s, the death toll of 28 in 2004, the latest figure available, is significantly lower. (See Christian Science Monitor article.) In 1968, West Virginia had 152 deaths in coal mines, but in 2005, the state recorded just three deaths in coal mines. (See Seattle Post-Intelligencer article.) Government and mining industry officials would have you believe that the continuing decline is mining deaths is a result of stricter government oversight and corporate compliance. Is that really the case?

It’s too soon to conclude what led to the Sago tragedy, but the visibility of the incident should ensure a thorough investigation. We do know already that the Sago mine had a questionable safety record:

  • In 2004, the mine’s accident rate in 2004 was three times higher than the national average.
  • In 2005, the mine received 205 orders and citations for health and safety violations, 96 of which carried a “significant and substantial” risk of death or injury.
  • Last year, the mine was forced to halt operations 16 times after failing to comply with safety rules. Eight of those citations, which were among the most serious a mine can receive, occurred in the final quarter of the year.

(See Washington Post article.) Did any of these safety violations lead to the so-called “accident?” The families should demand answers.

Was there too long a delay in reaching the trapped miners? The Charleston Gazette thinks so. This newspaper from West Virginia’s capital reports that although a rescue team arrived at 1:30 p.m. after the explosion at 6:30 a.m. last Monday, they couldn’t get started until a backup crew arrived, when didn’t occur until after 5:30 p.m., nearly 12 hours later. Why so long? From 2000 to 2002 alone, the number of MSHA-approved safety teams nationwide dropped by 10 percent. Although the law requires every U.S. coal mine in the United States to have at least two mine rescue crews, as of 2004, there was actually just one rescue team for every four underground coal mines nationwide, according to a computer-assisted analysis of the MSHA data. (See Charleston Gazette article.)

Could the depletion of rescue teams have any link to the cuts to mine safety programs and a scuttled regulatory process which took place at the behest of the Bush Administration in 2002? The Gazette reports that in 2002, “[t]he mine rescue rule was among more than a dozen safety-rule improvements MSHA quietly halted work on, as part of a plan to better “focus” its rulemaking efforts.” (See Charleston Gazette article.) Would that be focusing on making mine owners more wealthy? The quarterly earnings recently reported by International Coal Group, owner of Sago mine since last November, were $158 million. The total fines for Sago’s 205 violations last year total about $25,000; the highest fine imposed for a repeated and serious violation was $878. That was hardly likely to break the bank, as the total amount of fines imposed last year equal about one minute of ICG’s earnings. (See TomPaine.com article.)

Most bureaucrats sitting behind a desk don’t have much danger more serious than a paper cut to fear at work, but there are workers out there who every day risk their lives so that our homes have heat and electricity. We owe it to them and their families to ensure that mines are as safe as we know how to make them, and that obvious safety violations are not so readily ignored in the face of nominal fines. If the scuttled regulations would have prevented this tragedy, we call on our nation’s leaders to resurrect them, as these tragic deaths should provide all the “focus” they need. All workers, regardless of their workplace conditions, deserve the very best safety protections we know how to provide, and tragedies like this should remind us all just how important that is.

Workplace Fairness: in harm’s way health and safety

Confined Space (Jordan Barab’s blog on workplace health and safety issues)

United Mine Workers (the Sago mine was non-unionized)

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.