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Monday, January 23, 2006

Mine Safety Hearings Today

There will be Congressional hearings on mine safety today, in the wake of two more coal mining deaths in West Virginia. That makes 14 total mining fatalities this year, before the end of January. (We had only 3 fatalities total last year, so this has been an exceptionally difficult few weeks.)

I've gotten a lot of e-mails with questions about mining safety issues, and the answers to those questions are fairly difficult to put into succinct summaries. What I will say is that this is not a specific coal mining problem, from all the reading I've been doing on the subject the last few weeks. Safety enforcement across major industries has changed substantially under the Bush Administration -- with a focus more on substantial cooperation with industry (and in some case, allowing industry to self-regulate) rather than agency enforcement and punishment for violations of law. Or "mostly carrot and very little stick," as one reader characterized what he had seen in his workplace.

And from everything I have read and been told, this is just the model the Preznit used when he was Governor of Texas. If some enterprising reporter had the time, looking into the stats for oil field injuries and workplace safety issues before Bushie, during Bushie and post-Bushie in Texas might be yield some interesting results. I haven't been able to get access to everything I need to run the numbers -- but I'd love it if someone who could get access could do a full number crunching on this.

I will say this, the former Clinton official in charge of mining safety issues is advising Gov. Joe Manchin here in WV in the wake of these mining disasters. And our legislature is talking about tightening our internal state regulations -- because they cannot depend on the Bush Administration and this Congress doing what needs to be done any longer.

Mining history says that tougher standards are built on the tragic deaths of miners. Politicians often have to have their hands forced to do the right thing -- and in a state like WV, coal is a huge force in politics because of the money and jobs involved on both sides of the chasm -- both corporate and worker/union.

Folks who mine coal know that their jobs are dangerous -- so do folks who work in chemical plants (my dad sure knew how dangerous the highly carcinogenic soup he dealt with every day was when he worked at a plastics plant) and other dangerous industries. They factor that in when they decide to work theree, because the pay is good compared to scant other job options (in our area, at least), especially with a lack of higher education.

Whatever the reason, safety has to be a bigger priority across industry in this country. Maximizing profits for investors or owners is clearly an important factor for the number crunchers, but when you consider the up front investment costs of better safety provision against the substantial potential costs of failure to provide for worker safety -- well, even investors can see that their money goes a lot further over the long run when safety and worker happiness is a priority.

We've lost that somewhere along the way...short term profit has become the sole measurement for a lot of investors, and this short-sighted approach has dovetailed dangerously with more lax enforcement standards from our MBA Preznit and his corner-cutting cronies who have helped him gut regulations. These jobs need to be done -- but the people who work the jobs are not some sort of disposable commodity like broken drill bits or outdated machinery. People who work in the industry on both sides know this -- but the decision-makers at the top of the chain lose sight of it, I think, in the sea of number crunching and profit-maximization that consumes their day to day work existence.

Those numbers represent flesh and blood -- and those people deserve the best protection that you can give them, because it is the sweat from their brows that brings the profit in for shareholders. It is that simple.

Whatever happens with the hearings today, and with the investigations into these two mining tragedies in WV, one thing is clear to me: we can't keep going forward this way. We need a national discussion about this -- something that unions used to take up with industry in their heyday, and something for which Democratic politicans need to pick up the torch.

The little guy needs a voice. He can't afford to buy a seat at the table through an Abramoff back-door deal or otherwise. Who will give him his voice? Who will stand up for the little guy -- even when the political spotlight inevitably fades on this issue to turn its glare on the next headline down the road? That's the question for which I want an answer.