Many of us likely remember last year’s tragic death of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. The deaths occurred following an explosion in the mine, which investigators now believe was cause by a buildup of coal dust and the failure of water-sprayers to douse sparks from machinery. That particular mine was owned by Massey Energy and the safety director at the mine was just recently convicted of lying to federal investigators and destroying records on hazardous conditions.
The Upper Big Branch mining accident is a particularly egregious example of how safety regulations failed to protect the 29 workers who died. In the year before the explosion in April of 2010, the mine was cited by safety inspectors 515 times and ordered to shut down operations 52 times. Yet all too often, those safety violations were allowed to go unaddressed and in that sense, the Upper Big Branch mining accident is evidence that stronger enforcement is also needed.
These issues—lack of safety regulations and lack of adequate enforcement—are issues that show up not only in mining, but across a wide range of industries where employees are working in dangerous positions. Throughout history, big industries have often been resistant to newer and stronger safety requirements, trying to protect their bottom lines and claiming that such regulation will stunt growth and job creation. These arguments have only gotten more forceful in the last few years with the economic recession. Our politicians are necessarily pushing for job creation and economic growth and in doing so seem to be on the side of big industry when it comes to worker safety. Many political leaders have tried to characterize safety requirements as an obstacle on the way of meeting these goals, and there has recently been a Republican clamor for deregulation
Setting aside for a moment the labor rights movement and the importance of workers rights, it is long past time to stop seeing worker safety requirements as the enemy and start seeing it as not only good for workers but good for business. Just like routine and preventative medical care is better than rushed emergency room visits for an individual, so too is industry “wellness” better than crisis response and management. While there are many moral and legal arguments to be made for safety requirements in multiple industries, if it is the bottom line profit that big business and Republican candidates care about most, then worker safety is a way to get there. In the long run, having safe working conditions and preventing accidents is far cheaper than the alternative.