Gambling lives for profit

Last week a former executive of Massey Energy Company was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for conspiring to evade federal workplace safety laws. A Massey supervisor and a security chief also are serving prison sentences.

Massey Energy owned a West Virginia coal mine in which 29 miners died in an explosion in 2010. Investigators determined that a volatile combination of coal dust and methane gas caused the explosion that killed the miners. If company management had followed federal safety regulations, the dangerous mixture would not have built up, and 29 deaths at the Upper Big Branch mine would have been prevented.

But the safety measures that would have kept the miners alive would have cost the company more money. Management gambled the miners’ lives for the sake of higher profits. They had been doing this for some time, apparently, in spite of regulations.

The Government vs. The Employers

The role of government in workplace safety has been a hotly debated issue in the U.S. for more than a century. Congress passed the first mine safety law in 1891, although it only applied to mines in territories, not states. A broader movement to regulate workplace safety began after the deaths of 146 garment workers in the Triangle Factory fire of 1911. In that case, the workplace was not only littered with flammable material; the company owners also had a policy of locking the doors so that employees could not leave. A fire broke out, and the workers were trapped.

Certainly, there are plenty of employers who care about the health and safety of employees. But there also are plenty of employers who see any government regulation as interference and nuisance. For all these years, employers have complained that health and safety regulations hurt business and don’t work, anyway. More recently, political libertarians have argued that government regulation, even of unsafe products and workplaces, is tyranny. Self-regulation is fairer and more efficient than following rules written by government bureaucrats, they say.

However, real-world experience shows us something else. There is copious data showing that government health and safety regulations can significantly reduce workplace related sickness, injuries and deaths. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), for example, documents significantly fewer mine deaths after regulatory laws were passed in 1969 and 1977.

Even when dangers are known, however, government regulators can be stymied by court challenges and political infighting. For example, medical science found an unmistakable link between asbestos and mesothelioma cancer by the 1960s. But the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) didn’t designate asbestos to be a carcinogen until 1975. The agency also spent several years answering court challenges from industry and unions as it crafted workplace regulations concerning asbestos.

Once regulations are in place, they can still be circumvented in several ways. One is by “regulatory capture.” This happens when regulatory agencies are taken over by people who are sympathetic to the industries they are regulating. A “captured” agency is more concerned about protecting business than in protecting the public. “Captured” agents may be reluctant to cite all but the grossest violations.

After the Upper Big Branch disaster, many accused MSHA of being “captured.” Since then, testimony has emerged that federal inspectors routinely alerted mining companies when to expect “surprise” inspections.

Rolling the Dice on Safety

Some business owners would rather pay fines than pay for a safer workplace. Many others would rather hire lawyers to fight fines in court than to pay them. Massey Energy received 515 citations for safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2009, but the company seems to have had little interest in addressing the violations. Regulators complain they don’t have enough clout to force compliance. Further, budget cuts have left many agencies short of inspectors.

The demise of labor unions also is a factor. In a union workplace, workers have some protection from being punished or fired for reporting safety concerns. Non-union workers have no such protection.

Libertarian arguments that companies would self-regulate if relieved of pesky government regulation defy rational understanding of human behavior. It’s a simple fact that the Upper Big Branch disaster could have been prevented with proper ventilation equipment; that was true whether the equipment was dictated by regulation or not.

The investigation into the Upper Big Branch explosion continues, and more former executives may be indicted. That ought to be a lesson to other mining companies not to gamble with their employees’ lives. But consider this: Just three years after the infamous Triangle Factory fire, one of the factory’s owners — a man who had been vilified in newspapers around the country — was caught once again locking his employees into a factory so they couldn’t leave. Some people will not learn.