Monday, September 11, 2006

Socializing the mines

Death fades with time. It's a fact of life that a lot of people don't like to admit to, but it's nonetheless true. September 11 is no less horrific now than it was five years ago, but the general public is less resolved. It's the same for any tragedy-- Flight 800, the Loma Prieta earthquake, Pearl Harbor. Even Katrina isn't what it was a year ago. It's just a fact of life.

What doesn't fade from these tragedies is the knee-jerk regulation that comes from it. The Patriot Act is a glaring example. More specific to West Virginia is the M.I.N.E.R. Act (that's a .pdf), an across the board increase in safety regulations after the Sago and Massey Energy Mine accidents early in the year. I remember thinking that the only good that can come from this act is the one-time psychic boost the public would get. The safety improvements were marginal, at best, while the costs of such measures had certain and deleterious effect on mine operators. (One common example is that two hours of oxygen is now required, above the previous level of one hour-- then recall that the Sago miners were trapped for nearly two days.) The increased safety regulations really don't make anyone any safer-- but it does keep the tragedy fresh in the minds of those who would probably be best being able to heal and move forward.

Of course, this is all assuming that the safety regulations are actually being enforced.

Many miners still choose to work for mines despite conditions, but this is an informed choice that they make--no one is being taken advantage of. Many of the families of the Sago miners were quoted as saying that they didn't like the fact that their relatives were working in the mines, but the money was just too good to consider other (safer) jobs. Who has the right to make a cost/benefit decision on behalf of any family?

Furthermore, is requiring costly safety improvements any different than requiring a remittance from miners who received a wage premium even though they never got hurt?

It's not the place of legislators to eliminate risk from the workplace (though they often feel exactly the opposite), much less do so with an uneven hand.

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