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Kia Franklin

Utah Mine Country Considers State Regulation of Industry

An article in the NY Times discusses the goings-on at a state panel on mine safety in Utah, which has me thinking about the broader policy discussion that is involved whenever we're deciding whether and to what extent to regulate an industry.

Two months after the tragic accident that killed 6 workers and 3 rescuers, the state is trying to determine whether it should step in and take a role in safety regulation, now the province of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. The state's new Mine Safety Commission panel is considering whether this would help prevent such tragedies from occuring in the future. After the collapse, the mine faced considerable public scrutiny over its safety standards and over allegations that its owner, Bob Murray, had used his political might to to oppose increased regulations.

The community is at least somewhat divided over the issue. Many miners say that tighter regulations would lead to the closing of some operations, and would have a detrimental impact on the industry, local economy, and their livelihoods. They say that safety monitoring is already thorough and does not need to be modified:

“This event was an anomaly and could not have been predicted,” said Joe Fielder, a longtime miner involved in the Crandall Canyon rescue effort. “This disaster was not the result of poor training or improper mine procedures.”

Others say that reliance on a federal system of regulation is not enough, and that the state should take part as well, for the safety of the miners:

A panel member, Dennis O’Dell, a mine safety official for the United Mine Workers of America, disputed the notion that the state did not have a role. He said that Utah should consider supplementing the federal inspections, that there was a national shortage of federal safety specialists and that the agency had fallen behind on inspections.

“A large number of mines are not getting the inspections,” Mr. O’Dell said. “In some cases, M.S.H.A.’s falling behind are affecting the health and safety of the miners. The state might be able to play some role to help.”

The two sides of the debate here seem to be the same issues that always come up when you talk about government regulation. On one side, what are the public safety and health concerns; and on the other, when does government involvment rise to the level of undue interference with free enterprise?

By now, my pro-public safety and health bias is likely very apparent. I believe in erring on the side of the public's interest, where you can always cut back if in time the current level of regulation proves to be too drastic. After all, the alternative is far worse--waiting until a serious injury or death occurs, after which allegations of sub-standard safety measures unfurl, before beefing up on regulation.

And how does this relate to the civil justice system? A common objection against an injured person's right to sue his or her injurer is that the injurer followed the rules and that the injured should fight to change the rules if he or she really wants to make an impact. The argument goes that otherwise the injurer didn't breach any obligation to the injured, and is not legally responsible. Government regulation and civil justice really go hand in hand--the more effective regulation of an industry is, the more likely it is that a compliant company will avoid liability. The less effective regulation is, the more likely it is that a compliant company is nevertheless exposed to liability for not taking reasonable measures to avoid injuring others. If we're going to keep loose regulations, corporations have to make it a priority to ensure workers' and consumers' health and safety to the extent reasonably possible.

This particular issue shows that the debate is not nearly cut and dry. Many working miners fear that more regulation will affect their jobs, their ability to provide for their familiies, and to that extent, it will impact their health and safety. Others say, "I can't provide for my family if I'm killed or severely injured while working." We need more conclusive information on the current levels of compliance with safety standards before the ultimate issue--whether more regulation would be too much and unnecessary--can be decided.

And if it does boil down to human safety versus the success of the industry, this most eloquent quote (courtesy of NYT) from a miner who spoke at the panel says it all: “The most precious resource in the mines is the miner, not the coal.”

Kia Franklin: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 10:13 AM, Sep 26, 2007 in Under-regulation | Workplace Safety
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