During the last three months of 2013, fifteen miners died on the job. Most were killed in electrical or powered haulage accidents; others fell from ladders or drowned in a dredge. The number of miner deaths has been steadily declining in recent years, a trend that continued throughout the first nine months of 2013, until the most recent uptick.
This can’t just be blamed on bad luck or bad weather, though ice can be dangerous. (By comparison, six miners died in the last quarter of 2012.) A recent audit of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) found that the agency can “only reach a fraction of the entities it regulates” and that it failed to target high-risk industries. OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program is designed for “worksites that show excellence in occupational safety and health,” but the audit found that 13 percent of participating companies had been cited for safety and health violations but were allowed to stay in the program.
Miners aren’t the only workers affected by these oversights. Three million people were injured on the job in 2012. There were a string of workplace accidents last year—two chemical plant explosions in Louisiana, a grain bin explosion in Indiana, a gas tank explosion in Florida. Last spring, fifteen people were killed in the West Chemical and Fertilizer Plant explosion in West, Texas. Seven different agencies were tasked with inspecting the plant and two agencies were tasked with inspecting the plant for risks of explosion—the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and OSHA. It turned out that OSHA had not inspected the plant since 1985 and DHS had never inspected it. (The plant was inspected in 2010 by the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which issued a fine of $10,100 for missing placards and “not having a security plan.”) The need for inspections might be less urgent if employees were able to report safety violations, but according to the Center for Effective Government, OSHA does not respond to worker complaints or protect them against retaliation from their employers.
Part of the problem is that President Obama has slashed the budget of both OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). OSHA’s ratio of inspectors to facilities fell from one inspector for every 1,900 workplaces in 1981 to one for every 4,300 facilities in 2012. OSHA can afford to visit a workplace only every ninety-nine years, on average.
Several bills targeting the regulatory process were reintroduced in 2013, although none were passed. The Regulatory Accountability Act, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act, and the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act would have required federal agencies to succumb to new procedures before they are able to implement regulatory rules, delaying the protection of public and worker safety.
Relatedly, last year the Department of Labor cut the staff of the Office of Administrative Law Judges by 5 percent, decreasing the number of judges who hear wage disputes and benefits cases. The result of these cuts, according to one retired administrative judge, is long waits for sick or injured claimants and subpar settlements.
The death of miners at the end of 2013 isn’t just an unfortunate anomaly but an example of broader problems in workplace safety regulations.