If an explosion occurs in a mine where dozens of miners are working and the exits are blocked, how many miners are endangered?
According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the answer is one.
One of the astonishing facts that emerged following the Sago mine disaster was the high number of fines issued by MSHA that only amounted to $60, despite the seriousness of the violations.
A front page USA Today article today explains that that reason for the low fines is that MSHA assumed that only one miner was endangered. The more miners that are endangered in any violation, the higher the fine -- into the thousands of dollars.
In 90% of Sago's violations in 2004 and 2005, inspectors said one person was endangered, according to a USA TODAY analysis of MSHA inspection reports. The agency declined to discuss the violations, saying they "will be examined" during an internal review of its oversight of Sago before the explosion.Examples of violations that received low fines because they allegedly endangered only one person included blocked emergency exits, chemical smoke, and unsafe accumulations of explosive coal dust.
The federal agency's pattern of finding a single person endangered by most hazards "is the most narrow interpretation of safety law you can take," says former MSHA senior adviser Tony Oppegard. "That's not how the mine act should be interpreted."