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Time is Right for Mine Safety Study

By James Sharpe

Taxpayer money has been used to support a study designed to determine if unionized underground coal mines are safer places to work than non-unionized mines. According to the results reported recently, yes, union operations are safer.

While the result might be a useful recruiting tool for the United Mine Workers of America, the fact is that most mine workers do not belong to unions. For that reason alone, the scarce federal research dollars that went into this study might have been better spent elsewhere.

At a time of dwindling resources, wouldn’t public policy be better informed by a study that tries to show if our current regulatory scheme is having a positive impact on mine safety? We are paying a premium to prevent mine injuries and fatalities. Wouldn’t it benefit the mining industry and society at large to know if we are getting real bang for our bucks?

And those bucks are considerable: $991 per miner, a figure derived by dividing the number of miners in 2010 (360,563) into the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) 2010 budget of $357.3 million. This is way more than its sister agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, spends on each of the tens of millions of workers under its jurisdiction.

What such research would conclude is an open question, but many mine safety and health professionals think they already know the answer. Asked if they think zero fatalities in American mining is possible, safety pros in double-digit percentages will say yes. Then ask if they think universal compliance with MSHA’s regulatory regimen will get us to zero and the majority answer in the negative.

The reason for the lack of faith in full compliance is the disconnect seen between the rulebook and the day-to-day hazards miners face. Safety officials will also tell you MSHA is missing the boat by concentrating on conditions rather than on behavior.

Injury and illness statistics suggest they have a point. MSHA has ratcheted up enforcement throughout mining in response to five high profile underground coal tragedies that have occurred since 2006. If heightened enforcement is a magic bullet, then injury statistics since 2006 should reflect its impact. Yet, the fatality rate in M/NM actually showed a 6 percent increase in 2010 when compared to 2006, according to MSHA. This occurred after the rate dropped 23 percent in 2005 from 2002, which were years not known for heavy enforcement.

Others have taken notice, too. In an article last month, Rock Products law columnist Mark Savit observed that while there have been steady declines in injury rates in the various non-coal sectors since the turn of this century, the declines have not matched the increases in enforcement. He, too, called for a study.

To listen to MSHA’s pronouncement and to see the agency in action, one would think its personnel are convinced more regulations and tighter enforcement are the answer to safer mines. For instance, when fatalities hit record lows, as occurred in 2009, MSHA was quick to claim the achievement demonstrated that its tough-cop approach was paying off. And the agency wouldn’t be pressing Congress for more authority as it is now if it didn’t think bigger muscles were critical to improved safety performance.

So it comes as a genuine surprise to read MSHA’s 2011 revised operating plan. The 19-page document ends with five questions which planners said emerged from preparation of the document. Two of the questions are especially eye-opening: “Do higher civil penalties result in safer and healthier mines and improved compliance?” and “Is compliance with the law and MSHAregulations correlated with lower injuries and fatalities?” For an agency that talks and acts like it already knows the answers, these questions come as quite a shock.

The obvious choice for just such a scientific inquiry is NIOSH, the government’s occupational safety and health research agency. Jeff Kohler, who runs NIOSH’s mining program, has said the Institute would be receptive to doing such a study. Why not get on with it then?