Friday, April 09, 2010

Arizona experts discuss the coal mine disaster

 The New York Times ran two online series with commentary from experts on the West Virginia coal mine disaster [right, photo from MSHA], with an Arizonan quoted in both.   
"Dr. Edward Kavazanjian Jr., a professor of civil engineering at Arizona State University, said, “I don’t think it’s a big secret about how to deal with the problem; it’s time and money.”
Ventilating tunnels properly, Dr. Kavazanjian said, was not a technical challenge, but was cumbersome. He said that while he did not know what caused the most recent disaster, both mine operators and miners generally want to mine as much coal as possible and are sometimes prone to cutting corners."

"How Deaths Are Prevented
Price Fishback is the Frank and Clara Kramer Professor of Economics at the University of Arizona, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and co-editor of the Journal of Economic History.
The New York Times reported that the Massey mine disaster in West Virginia has raised questions about why stricter federal mining laws enacted after the 2006 Sago mining disaster failed to prevent another tragedy. Is more regulation going to prevent the next accident?
After studying the history of workplace safety regulation, I have my doubts. The risks from underground mining can be reduced, but complete prevention of accidents requires stopping all coal production. Over the last century miners and companies have developed new technologies that have dramatically reduced the risks of mining.
A handful of specific regulations cut coal accidents in the early 1900s. Yet, there are numerous economic studies of workplace safety regulations that find that accident rates fall very little after new regulations are passed.

The reasons are varied. Most laws have not been passed without reformers being joined by the leading, often large, companies in lobbying for laws. The new laws establish practices that the leading companies have already adopted.
The new requirements therefore only enhance safety for a small share of workers. Hiring inspectors is costly, and legislatures have balked at spending large amounts on enforcement.
Progressive Era legislation called for relatively small fines for violations, although modern fines are much larger. In addition to regulation, anticipation of stock price declines and bad publicity from accidents provide some non-regulatory incentives to prevent more accidents.
Workers’ compensation insurance requirements provide employers some financial incentives because they pay lower premiums in safer mines. Given that inspectors arrive intermittently, prevention of accidents is largely determined by the daily efforts of employers and workers to follow the effective work rules they develop.

Compared to the past, mine accidents have become increasingly rare events. As a result, each death receives far more national attention and serves as a harsh reminder of the necessity for mines to redouble their efforts at prevention."

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