Tuesday, February 28, 2006

US Mines: Good or Bad or Who Knows?

Can both of these statements be true?

U.S. mines called safest in world, but can do better

U.S. miners say safety gear lags behind that of other countries

On one hand, other countries seem to do better keeping their miners alive:
Dennis O'Dell once believed U.S. coal mines were the world's safest. Now he's not so sure.

Lately, he's seen an Australian device that can track miners underground and another that can send them messages. He's read about Canadian potash miners who survived a fire inside an airtight chamber packed with food, water and oxygen.

U.S. companies use the world's most sophisticated equipment to dig coal, but O'Dell, health and safety administrator for the United Mine Workers of America, now wonders if the same can be said of the gear used to keep the miners themselves safe.
But on the other hand, at least we're better off than China:
Coal mine accidents in China, the world's top producer, kill an average of 16 workers a day.

"Overall, U.S. mine health and safety - it's still the envy of the world," says Raja Ramani, a professor of mining engineering at Penn State University.

"In many ways, experts say the U.S. coal industry is the model to emulate, with safety laws on the books, a federal agency charged with enforcing them and well-funded, health-oriented research."
But on the other hand, no one really knows what's going on.

According to an article in today's Wall St. Journal (paid subscription), MSHA recordkeeping makes it difficult to monitor trends in mine hazards.
  • According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), MSHA doesn't collect injury or enforcement data on "independent contractors" who work in mines, although fatality data is collected. And the problem is growing. The GAO said 18% of underground coal miners worked for contractors in 2002, up from 13% in 1993.

  • Safety information is organized by individual mine operators instead of by parent companies, making it hard to judge a company's performance.

  • MSHA's website lists proposed penalties, but figuring out what is actually assessed is tough.

  • MSHA's databases contain "information on accidents that were investigated, not all mine accidents," according to GAO