January 20, 2009

‘Bush Hurt Mine Safety’ Meme Won’t Yield to Facts

2008 was the safest year ever to be an American miner. The combined number of fatalities from all forms of mining was the lowest ever.

2007 (latest information available) also shows the lowest “all-injury” rate for miners on record by far.

Yet Ken Ward Jr.’s early-January contribution at the Charleston (WV) Gazette to the spate of final-month Bush-bashing pretended that this data doesn’t exist. Instead he gave the impression of an opposite situation. Media outlets have been trying and failing to make this case since the Sago Mine Disaster of January 2006 (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), even while the safety stats have generally showed nearly continuous improvement.

You’ll see that Ward also uses a headline that will leave those who recall Barack Obama’s campaign promise to bankrupt new coal-powered plants shaking their heads in disbelief (bolds after headlines are mine):

Sago families look to Obama
Three years after fatal mine blast, reformers turn to new administration

Peggy Cohen’s youngest son, Hunter, was only 2 years old when the Sago Mine blew up. Today, he still blows kisses whenever the family goes by his grandfather’s grave.

Cohen’s father, Fred Ware, was among the 12 miners killed in the Sago Mine disaster. The family still feels the loss three years later.

….. At the same time, Cohen says she worries about the safety of other miners, and holds out hope that a change in the White House might help more families from losing husbands, fathers and sons in the nation’s coal mines.

“We cannot take mine safety lightly,” Cohen said in an e-mail message. “There is still plenty of work which needs to be done to protect our miners. This is my hope for our new president and his staff.”

Three years ago this morning, an explosion ripped through International Coal Group’s Sago Mine, located outside Buckhannon in Upshur County.

Within hours, the national media had focused on 13 missing miners. Twelve of those workers died before rescuers could reach them 40 hours later. Only Randal McCloy Jr. survived.

….. In response, there’s been a flurry of new laws, tougher regulations and demands for increased inspections and enforcement. Much progress has been made. Last year, for example, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for the first time completed all of its mandated quarterly inspections of underground coal mines nationwide.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., pushed for additional funding to replace MSHA inspection jobs that had been cut by Bush.

….. despite improvements, many critics say MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) remains a troubled agency damaged by Bush administration budget cuts and efforts to replace tough enforcement with industry-friendly “compliance assistant” programs.

Ward’s claims to blame are truly, truly lame.

Here is a chart that compares the mine-fatality record during the Clinton and Bush administrations (source data is here for coal and here for metal/nonmetal):

MiningFatalities1994to2008.jpg

Clinton responsibility goes through 2001 because his last budget controlled what the MSHA could do that year. Similarly, Bush will still have responsibility for 2009.

In 2008, there were 29 coal-mining fatalities and 22 in all other mining (collectively referred to a “Metal/NonMetal”). The combined total of 51 is the lowest on record. This has occurred while total employment in all mining has increased almost 19% in the past five years.

Concentrating on coal, as that is the subject of Ward’s report, here is more comprehensive info through 2007 (original page link; full-sized version is here):

CoalSafetyData2001to2007

The all injury rate in coal mining fell almost 30% from 2001 to 2007. There has been little if any let-up in inspection hours per mine. If there’s an issue, it would appear to be the decline in 2007′s inspection completion rate, which may be due to paperwork and other requirements imposed by the MINER Act of 2006 that became law in response to Sago.

This gets us back to Ward’s most potentially substantive question: Which is better, so-called “tough enforcement” or “compliant-assistant” (I would suggest that they are really “continuous improvement”) programs?

The improvements under Bush support the idea that it’s the latter. This makes sense, unless you think that mine operators could give a rip about employee safety. If there are any such employers, I would suggest that today they are few and far between.

As an inspector, if you come in with the assumption that everyone would like to improve safety within reasonable resource constraints, you make constructive suggestions for improving things without getting adversarial about it — unless you see clear signs of negligence. That seems to have worked quite well during the Bush Administration, despite Ken Ward’s and Bob Byrd’s bleatings.

The so-called “tough enforcement” approach tends to look for violations, no matter how petty, with the goal of maximizing fines and showing up supposedly exploitive employers, who are presumptively believed to be doing as little as they possibly can get away with to keep the workplace safe. This “gotcha” approach does little to improve safety except in situations where there are egregious violations.

If the Obama administration returns to the adversarial approach and ceases the constructive inspector-industry dialogue, I predict slower improvement in mine safety. The fact is, contrary to Ken Ward and Bob Byrd, Obama’s MSHA will have a tough act to follow.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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UPDATE: The MSHA’s press release on the record low in fatalities is here (also stored here in case the Obama administration moves it).

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