Friday, January 13, 2006

No light at tunnel’s end

I have been haunted by the Sago mine disaster since it happened, in spite of the fact that it is so grossly overshadowed by the ongoing Iraq disaster. What haunts me is my certainty that the Sago deaths were needless, and in fact, would likely not have played out as they did, in most other hazardous industries.

In the “hazmat” realm, ruled by OSHA, the most tightly regulated circumstance is that of “confined space entry” and there is no more confined space than an underground coal mine. Yet, none of OSHA’s “HAZWOPER” rules seems to be part of mine safety programs (regulated instead by MSHA), which is both troubling and puzzling. Most appallingly, there was no on-site rescue crew available to assist the miners in the event of an emergency, an egregious violation of OSHA’s confined space entry regulations. Apparently, where such regulations are needed the most, they are not in force.

Certainly, we have the technology to have provided emergency air for the miners, to allow their escape, but it was not made available to them. Certainly, we have the technology for the miners to have had a line of communication with those above-ground, but it was not made available to them. Certainly, we have instruments capable of identifying an explosive atmosphere, but they were not made available to the miners.

Just as certainly, the pathetic lack of lifesaving equipment—self-contained breathing apparatus, gas detectors, adequate communications—had nothing to do with an absence of technology, but everything to do with an unwillingness to spend money to prevent the deaths of the miners. The decision had already been made that their lives were not worth the cost of adequately equipping the mine for their safety, that in cold economic terms, it would be more fiscally prudent to risk their lives in order to squeeze a bit more profit out of the coal mine.

It is just such economic calculus that fostered the creation of OSHA in the first place, but why does OSHA apparently not have jurisdiction over the Sago mine? Or, if OSHA does have jurisdiction, how could it have gone so wrong? Mine-owners are not in the worker-protection industry; they are in business to make money. And this is why such regulations as OSHA’s are absolutely necessary for worker protection—because it will always be cheaper to cut corners and risk worker deaths or injuries, and employers will always and ever see such deaths and injuries as simply another “cost of doing business.” The Sago miners, and all miners, will always deserve better.

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