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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Mine Safety

Government oversight of working conditions to ensure worker safety was a big part of the Progressive platform 100 years ago. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where factory owners had locked the doors to make sure their workers didn't duck outside for a break from time to time, resulted in hundreds of deaths, and while corporate interests tried to argue that working conditions were a matter of contract between employer and employee, public -- Progressive -- outrage forced the creation of the first workplace safety laws.

Question for my readers: are those laws a good thing? Is adequate staffing of OSHA and similar agencies that protect workers a good use of taxpayer dollars? And when employers violate safety rules repeatedly, should the fines be significant, or just slaps on the wrist?

For example, what would you think if you learned that the West Virginia mine where twelve miners just died had received 208 safety violation citations last year, but hadn't fixed the problems -- maybe because the largest penalty for not fixing them was only $440?

In my law practice, I defended plenty of employers who were being cited for inconsequential safety violations. I'm not saying that all bureaucracies always do good. But in places like mines, where every incremental gain in safety has a high monetary cost, it's natural for the owners to set a lower bar for safety -- "good enough" -- than the miners' families might like, and it makes good sense for government agencies, which make rules in a public process that takes all sides' concerns into account, to enforce minimum standards, like a referee.

My constant refrain: the issues I'm writing about -- this time, keeping miners and other workers reasonably safe -- aren't based on specifically Democratic or Republican values. Hard work is an American value, and keeping workers reasonably safe is an American value. It should be on the Neoprog radar.

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