Thursday, May 27, 2010

Safety doesn't pay

While the rest of the world is waiting to see if the BP well in the Gulf can be capped, NPR has been looking at our last industrial disaster, the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners. The network discovered that mine owner Massey Energy routinely pulled the wool over the eyes of Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors.

Fortunately, under the Obama administration, the MSHA seems to be taking its role of protecting mine workers more seriously than it did in former years. The agency has made a number of surprise inspections of Massey mines. Inspectors were following up on tips that the company was not hanging safety curtains that are supposed to direct air to the face of the shaft, dilute methane and keep down coal dust, which can not only explode but is the cause of black lung. The result:
MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said inspectors blitzed the Massey mines and stopped people from tipping off workers inside. "We captured the phone and we went underground and unfortunately in all three of these cases, we found the anonymous tips were true," Stricklin said.
Massey is worse than other employers--and its errors are more likely to cause loss of life--but its behavior is perfectly understandable when we remember what corporations exist for: to make money. Not to be nice to workers. Not to provide safe workplaces. To make money.

Now, some people (like your editor) would argue that better working conditions mean more productive workers, a greater likelihood of being able to hire high-quality employees and less turnover. All of which contributes to profitability, or should. But it's hard to measure such things, whereas dollars saved on safety equipment, and more hours spent cutting coal, because the time supposed to be spent on safety is cut, all go directly to the bottom line.

The tendency to cut back on safety--and analogous measures like environmental protection--is exacerbated in a climate in which the stock market values the last quarter more than the last quarter-century. In today's economy, the company that cares about worker safety or protecting the environment starts out behind those who don't.

So industry cannot be left to its own devices when it comes to the health and safety of its workers or the protection of the public. Capitalism is fine when it comes to separating companies that can make money in a dog-eat-dog world from those that can't. But pure capitalism does not care whit about other matters. So Massey Energy and BP will go on their merry way, killing people and harming the world we live in, as long as they can.

Which is why we need strong, effective government. Which ought to be obvious, and was for many years, but is today threatened by a rising tide of ignorance.

No comments: