Monday, January 30, 2006

What's mine is mine

Glad to see the 70 trapped miners in a Saskatchewan mine have all been safely extracted. It's inevitable - and happens in every report I've seen on the event - to have this incident compared to the tragic event at the WV Sago mine.

Obviously - I don't know nearly enough about mining techniques (specifically, the differences in mining for coal vs. potash), and only slightly more about mining safety regulations in the US vs. those in Canada, but I couldn't help marvel at the idea of "safe rooms" and how relatively easy it seemed to have been for the 70 Canadian miners to reach safe areas where they would be secure until rescued. Certainly understanding that the use of safe rooms may simply be more appropriate in huge potash mine as opposed to the smaller Sago mine, the question is whether this use of "safe rooms" is a requirement under Canadian mine safety regulations, under US regulations - and if there's some sort of size threshhold or other means that require their use. From what I can tell - the Sago mine looks it was a long, thin, 2 miles versus the 18X12 mile Saskatchewan mine.

Forget the cost, I'd just want to know if it was physically feasible in a mine like the Sago mine. If so - and I grant that's one HUGE if - why wasn't there one at the Sago mine? If the answer then does have to turn to cost, my next question is whether "cost prohibitive" means the profit margin shrinks a point or 2 -- or makes the whole operation unprofitable.

There are probably plenty of answers to be found at the MSHA's special site set up for the Sago tragedy...

But I'd like to wax on the larger philosophical point.

We don't like to talk about it, but the idea of safety costs vs. the bottom line is analysis that virtually any industry undertakes. Outside of public safety employees (police, fire, rescue teams, etc) -- most of the private industries that have high rates of casualties - not just death, but injury or otherwise - could certainly be made 100% safe. Setting aside costs - it's entirely possible to get ore out of the ground without putting anyone's safety at risk. However - certainly, the costs would be so prohibitively high as to prevent any ore mining... so the cost of increased safety gets balanced against the bottom line on a balance sheet.

It's not "an outrage" in and of itself - ever since the days when our loinclothed forefathers went after larger animals with stones, spears, and arrows, there's been some degree of danger in many of the industries nominally necessary to maintain our civilization. We make this tradeoff somewhat 'automatically'.

Nor am I laying the fault at the feet of the capitalists - as much as our free market treats labor and lives like any other resource or commodity, state-controlled economic systems can and have done far worse. With no avenue for change - union organizing or a court system to seek recompense, miners (or loggers... or commercial fishing vessels... or you name the industry) would be even less safe.

I accept that risk is inevitable. I accept that in the end, we make a decision on how much safety we can afford. I even accept that a free market certainly enjoys more mechanisms to improve this safety than any other.

What bothers me is that we allow this conversation to take place in board rooms and stockholder meetings, and increasingly -- the two single largest mechanisms for making that analysis public and giving the common worker a chance to weigh in, organized labor and the court system, are increasingly under attack.

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