Thursday, January 05, 2006

Not So Safe As All That

Just saw the long article on the Sago Mine's history in U.S.A. Today.

The paper noted that the coal industry's injury rate isn't way above other industries. Yes, but. It's the rate of fatal injuries, not total injuries, that has always stood out.

Other industries may have lots of carpal tunnel syndrome, but there are darn few where your workplace is likely to collapse or explode on you if you let your attention waver.

Now, guess what. It's hard to find comparative rate data for on-the-job deaths in different industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't compare industries by fatality rate on its website. It gives you only the raw numbers of deaths, no adjustment for the different numbers of employees in different lines of work.

OK, the following is rough, and by all means check my math for yourself, but according to my calculation, a coal miner was more than 6 times as likely to get killed on the job as the average U.S. worker in 2004.

(Had to use 2004 data because last year's aren't all available yet.)

Total employment was roughly 139 million according to BLS, in June, which should be representative of the year. Total on-the-job fatalities were 5,703. That's about 1 death in 24,373 workers.

MSHA puts coal mine employment in 2004 at 76,488 direct employees of mine operators, plus 32,246 employees of "independent contractors." {The different treatment of these contractor employees is another, long story.) That's a total of 108,734 coal miners covered by MSHA. Twenty-eight of them were killed. (Officially. That's another story.) That's about 1 coal miner killed in 3,883.

* * *

Clearly, MSHA was concerned about the mine. That has often been the case before a tragedy. Questions that will need looking into include:

--Were the MSHA-approved mine plans appropriate? Equally important, was the mine operator complying with them?

--Why were so many of the violations written up as non S&S( nonserious)?

--Did MSHA consider using the law's Pattern of Violations provision to deal with the chronic hazards? This little known provision of the law allows the agency to issue a closure order if there is such a pattern.* To the best of my knowledge it has never been used.

--Does the agency need more tools to deal with mines that repeatedly fail to comply? For instance, the power to close the whole mine The power to require more effective safety plans, not just bare adequacy?

* * *

*Correction, sorry, I briefly posted a statement that finding a pattern of violations would allow the agency close the whole mine. That was wrong. They can only close whatever part is deemed to be affected. See Section 104(e)(1).

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