In the aftermath of the Sago mine disaster, the Bush Administration issued
familiar and predictable promises to conduct a full investigation and take
“necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again.”
Administration officials could learn a lot about improving mine safety by
talking with any miner for just a few minutes. But the most crucial step to
prevent tragedies like Sago has little to do with the specifics of mining -- it
involves changing the cost-benefit analysis made by corporate executives in
workplace safety decisions.
Consider the decisions by managers of the Sago mine, which received more than
200 citations last year from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA),
the federal agency charged with enforcing safety compliance. These were not
minor infractions; in the last quarter of 2005, inspectors cited 18 “serious and
substantial” violations capable of causing major injuries or deaths. Not
surprisingly, Sago's accident rate tripled the national average and more than a
dozen serious roof falls -- in which huge slabs of the mine roof simply
collapsed -- were recorded last year. Many citations were for violating
ventilation standards that exist specifically to prevent explosions like that
which doomed Sago's victims.
“This mine [Sago] should have been closed… the record is very clear,” says
Jack Spadaro, former director of the National Mine Safety and Health Academy.
Instead, MSHA continued issuing fines and the managers at then-owner Anker
Mining Co. simply wrote them off as a cost of doing business on the cheap. It
made perfect sense for the corporation's bottom line; the fines for those 205
violations total about $25,000. This was a pittance to Anker, never mind
International Coal Group (ICG), which bought the Sago mine last November. ICG's
most recent quarterly earnings were $158 million, meaning the average fine
levied in 2005 -- about $150 -- equals a few seconds of income. Such
"enforcement" has a deterrent effect akin to punishing drunk driving with fines
of a few nickels.
Like drunk or reckless drivers, most corporate executives would never break
the law deliberately if they knew action X would cause the deaths of persons one
through 12. But that's never the case. The structure
of corporations tends to separate decision-making power from accountability
for those decisions, and executives are expected to weigh only economic
costs against benefits, not the human impact of their decisions.
At Sago, it seems management performed the same calculations their
counterparts at General
and Firestone, and other corporations employed with deadly results. When
money saved by ignoring the law far outweighs the cost of minuscule fines and
the occasional lawsuit, corporations often will endanger workers, customers or
all of us.
The Bush administration reflexively blames “bad apples” rather than addresses
a broken system and its own role in perpetuating it, but Rep. Major Owens, D-NY,
was on target when he noted last year, "the federal government is itself guilty
of gross negligence in efforts to deter corporate manslaughter.”
Rather than solving that problem, Bush and Congress continue to exacerbate
it. Since Bush took office, 17 proposed MSHA standards to protect miners' safety
and health were discarded, and the number of mines referred by MSHA to the
Justice Department for criminal prosecution has dropped from 38 in 2000 to 12
Compromising the agency's mission already driven away dedicated staff.
Celeste Monforton, former special assistant at the MSHA for 6 years under the
Clinton administration, told me she left a year after Bush took office because
she “didn't want to be a disgruntled employee.” Monforton believed Bush
appointees were focused on “trying to be a friend and partner to industry
instead of protecting workers.”
Bush appointees also have squelched the flow of information from MSHA,
denying or heavily redacting information requests. Ironically, the agency was
exceptionally transparent during his father's presidency, according to Ellen
Smith, editor of Mine Health
and Safety News. Preventing the Next Tragedy
When Rep. Owens introduced the Wrongful
Death Accountability Act last year, to make corporate manslaughter a felony
offense and double the maximum punishment for lying to federal safety
inspectors, Republicans quickly killed the bill on a party-line vote.
In sharp contrast, government responded swiftly (if inadequately) when the
corporate media and wealthy interests sounded alarms over the financial harm
caused by fraud and accounting crimes at Enron. Forcing federal officials
to change their political calculations and treat corporate crimes that kill as
seriously as those harming investors will require a level of public outcry that
dwarfs the response to the Enron and Arthur Andersen scandals.
Perhaps the outrage over Sago will prove the impetus to save the lives of
other Americans. It's not just to protect those toiling in mines. More U.S.
workers are killed in workplace accidents in an average day than died in the
Sago mine -- most of them in equally preventable events.
Though the timing was unpredictable, let's recognize the Sago tragedy is not
rightfully called an “accident.” Corporate executives' decisions will change
when endangering workers' lives carries the likelihood of painful fines or
imprisonment. Only then will crimes like those at Sago, and the subsequent
tragedy, cease to be regular events.
Addendum: On Jan. 10, less than one week after the Sago
miners were found dead, a roof collapse at a mine owned by Maverick Mining Co.
in Pikeville, KY killed employee Cornelius Yates. The mine had been cited five
times in two years for failure to
protect against roof falls. The average fine was less than $70.
Recommended sources for further
reading:The Charleston (WV) Gazette:
where, in the aftermath of the Sago explosion, reporter Ken Ward Jr. and other
staff put on a daily demonstration of what thorough reporting means.
Confined Space: This
blog is a rich source of information on labor and workplace safety issues.
Mine Safety and Health
News: comprehensive news on safety issues in the industry
Mine Safety Watch: a
Standard: provided some fine early reporting on Sago
The Mine Safety and Health
Administration: a federal regulatory body
Additional sources for this article appear here.
Jeff Milchen directs ReclaimDemocracy.org, an organization
committed to ending corporate rule and revitalizing democracy.