Mine safety regulations: do they work?

The mainstream media attack on Charles Koch, David Koch, and Koch Industries has reached the state of West Virginia. This time a newspaper criticizes the Charles G. Koch Foundation for supporting a “conservative Morgantown think tank and several positions at the West Virginia University economics department.” A specific target of criticism is West Virginia University economics professor Russell S. Sobel and a collection of essays he edited.

Here’s what the Charleston Gazette printed in an article: “One essay questions the value of ‘mandated’ mine safety laws, stating government regulations may increase accident rates.”

Lobbing a brick like this doesn’t do much to increase understanding of important issues of public policy, including the safety of coal miners.

Who could be opposed to the safety of coal miners, after all? I think we can all agree that we’d like miners to work in safety. But do laws and government regulation make them safer? The natural reaction of most people is to assume that government regulation will increase safety. But that’s not always the case.

Here’s a recent example of regulatory failure: Recently research has been presented that shows that bans on texting while driving don’t work and may actually increase the number of crashes. The results of this research are contradictory to what almost everyone in Kansas — and other states — thought this year when the legislature passed, and the governor signed, the texting ban law. It was well-intentioned, but potentially harmful to the safety of drivers — the very people the law is designed to protect.

Having seen examples of regulatory failure like this, we should ask this question: Have mine safety laws — well intentioned as they are — increased the safety of miners?

Chapter 4 of the book in question (Unleashing Capitalism: Why Prosperity Stops at the West Virginia Border and How to Fix It) probably holds the material referred to by the Gazette. This chapter was not written by Sobel, but he is the book’s editor. Here’s two points from the book:

  • A focus by regulators on one type of accident led to an increase in other accidents. Overall deaths increased: “In 1910, the U.S. Bureau of Mines was created with a focus on mainly large-scale accidents, defined as gas and dust explosions and other accidents killing more than five men. State mining legislation was also mainly concerned with these types of accidents. This resulted in a decline in large-scale accidents, but an increase in small-scale accidents, which received less publicity but accounted for more deaths overall.”
  • Incentives matter: “With the passage of workers’ compensations laws, accidents actually increased. Under this new system, employers had an incentive to pay workers compensation instead of paying the extra costs of accident prevention.”

So there is good reason to be skeptical and critical of mine safety laws, even though this is contradictory to a superficial examination of the issue. Yet the mainstream media will automatically demonize those who question the validity of government regulation and those who are bold enough to support their work.

1 Comment

  • It is dangerous work. The people working there know that. Accidents are way down from the canary in the mine shaft days. Having more regulations would be like having OSHA in Iraq or Afghanistan for the troops LOL.

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