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Mining Disasters

The calendar had just turned 2006. On the very first shift of the new year, a team of mine workers reported to their work site at the Sago Mine in West Virginia. After an early-morning inspection cleared the mine for use, the workers descended into the mine for a day of work.

At 6:30 in the morning, an explosion occurred. The coal mine trapped thirteen mine workers. For the next two days, America watched, waited, and prayed for the safe return of the miners. Finally, after numerous media outlets reported that most of the miners had been rescued alive, America learned of the tragic fate of the miners: only one survived the ordeal; the other twelve perished.

The Sago coal mine had a dubious safety record:

  • In 2004, the mine had an accident rate that was three times higher than the national average.
     
  • In 2005, the mine received 205 orders and citations for health and safety violations. Of those 205 orders and citations, 96 carried a “significant and substantial” risk of injury.
     
  • In 2005, the mine received 18 “serious and substantial” violations capable of causing major injuries or deaths in the last quarter of 2005.
     
  • In 2005, the mine was shut down 16 times for failure to comply with safety rules, with 8 shut downs occurring in the final quarter of 2005—the quarter before the explosion and subsequent deaths of the twelve miners.
     
  • Despite the number of infractions and the serious nature of the infractions, the mine was fined approximately $25,000—total—for its 205 violations. The highest fine imposed was $440. International Coal Group, the owner of the Sago mine, reported a $110 million net profit last year.
     

The Sago coal mine tragedy, of course, was not an isolated incident. In May, five miners died after a Kentucky coal-mine blast, with three of the miners dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. Once again, despite 80 citations (one-third of which were deemed “serious and substantial”), the mine operators were able to escape with only $8,300 in fines. As of August, 55 miners had died in 2006, with 37 of those deaths occurring in coal mines. Mining has the second-highest fatality rate of any industry (28.3 fatalities per 100,000 workers); only agriculture is deadlier.

One observer has questioned the cost-benefit analysis mine operators face, as it is simply more economical to pay a miniscule fine for a safety violation instead of remedying the situation. As another observer noted, “There are simply not enough incentives for safety built into the regulatory and compensation system.”

Another potential problem involves the federal Mine Safety and Health Administraion's (MSHA) “buddy-buddy” approach with mining industry groups, which may have made MSHA too friendly with the industry it regulates. The number of mine operators criminally prosecuted by the Justice Department has declined from 38 in 2000 to a mere 12 last year. While MSHA has defended their industry-friendly policies by pointing to declining numbers in fatalities and accidents in the past 5 years, as a Washington Post editorial points out, the impact of regulatory policies may remain latent for a few years. The recent statistics indicating an improving mine safety record might reflect the stronger regulatory policies adopted in the 1990’s. The recent developments—tragically reflected in the Sago coal mine disaster—might mark the beginning of the more industry-friendly 2001 regulatory policies adopted under the Bush administration. In recent years, MSHA has stopped publishing results of accident investigations, leading another Washington Post editorial to remark, “The Bush administration's preference for concealing formerly public information has, it seems, penetrated the mine safety inspection world, too.”

One specific concern raised by the Sago mine tragedy was the functioning of emergency air packs. According to the sole survivor, Randy McCloy, some of the emergency air packs that were supposed to provide an hour’s worth of oxygen were broken. The United Mine Workers of America has since sued MSHA to demand random inspections of the devices, in addition to demanding new training under simulated conditions of a mine accident.

Against this backdrop, the Assistant Secretary of OSHA, the federal agency charged with protecting workers, gave a speech entitled “Adults Do the Darndest Things” to a group of children, accompanied with pictures of workers performing dangerous tasks. As one observer noted, the photos were “the workplace safety version of the Darwin Awards.” The implication of this presentation was that workplace accidents could be easily prevented if workers weren’t so dumb and stopped doing those “darn things.”

Fortunately for workers, state legislatures and Congress did attempt to address the problem. Within weeks of the accident, West Virginia beefed up its mine safety laws. The state created a 24-hour hotline to report mine safety accidents. If the mine operator does not report the accident within 15 minutes, the operator could be levied a $100,000 fine. The new state law also requires increasing the number of oxygen supply tanks. Federal lawmakers meanwhile have passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER), a law that raises the minimum fines for safety violations from $60 to $2,000, with certain safety violations having a maximum of $220,000. In addition, each miner must be equipped with an emergency air pack capable of providing two hours of oxygen. Critics argue that the law fails to provide for underground rescue shelters and fails to prevent disasters in the first place.

Workers, especially physical laborers, face dangers every day in the workplace. While mine safety has improved dramatically in the past century, and certain mining companies have taken innovative steps to become desirable workplaces, there is still much room for improvement. The Sago disaster is an unfortunate reminder of this principle and a reminder of the dangers—dangers which are largely avoidable—that hard-working men and women face every day just doing their jobs.