The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

U.S. coal mines:
Accidents waiting to happen

Jan 16, 2006

The disaster that occurred at the Sago Mine in West Virginia could easily happen at many other mines. The lack of safety at Sago is not unique.

Less and less does the U.S. government enforce mine safety. Budgets for mine safety and health agencies have been cut, along with other social safety nets. The MSHA is short on mine inspectors – its budget for 2006 was cut by $4.9 million dollars resulting in 170 job cuts.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is issuing fewer “high-dollar” fines of $10,000 or more than in the past – 12% fewer since 2001 than in the previous five years. Companies that are fined ignore them, and the MSHA lets them get away with it.

The courts also turn a blind eye to mine safety violations. The MHSA imposed a fine of $435,000 on an Alabama mine after 13 miners were killed in an explosion there in 2001. A judge later reduced that fine to $3,000 – just $230 for each miner’s life lost!

There are too few rescue teams available. In the region around the Sago Mine, there is only one rescue team for every four mines – despite the fact that federal law requires there be two rescue teams on the scene of an accident before they can start the rescue!

Many mines have inadequate communications systems like the Sago mine – most are using at least 30 year old technology. While wireless phones and computers have become widespread – technology that can be used underground is rare.

Mines are supposed to have self-rescuers – breathing machines that miners can use in an emergency – stored throughout the mines, yet many do not. The self-rescuers in use were designed decades ago – and are heavy for miners to carry, so companies often let workers store them somewhere rather than carry them.

There are fewer companies producing mine safety equipment as some of them have moved into more lucrative fields like military applications, “homeland security,” firefighting equipment, etc. Those that remain often produce shoddy equipment. Many self-rescuers have been recalled because they’ve deteriorated or leaked.

All mines are supposed to have two escape-ways. Yet these escapes often are in disrepair or get damaged in an accident – which could be prevented by better construction.

Under these conditions, many of the country’s mines are accidents waiting to happen. Unless workers impose safer conditions – it may take more disasters like Sago before we see better saftey measures put in place.