Saving Lives or Wasting Resources? The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act

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Most Americans take for granted the federalgovernment's role in protecting workers frominjuries that might occur on the job. The popularnotion is that, without the OccupationalSafety and Health Administration and its sisteragency, the Mine Safety and HealthAdministration, some companies, perhaps many,would not invest in safety, which would lead to arise in workplace accidents in the United States.The problem with the popular perception is thatit is based more on faith in beneficent governmentthan on facts about government interventionin workplace safety.

Although MSHA has claimed success, there isno reliable evidence indicating that the FederalMine Safety and Health Act of 1977 has madethe nation's mines any safer. It is actually morelikely that the act's substitution of rules forresults, of government vigilance for employeevigilance, and of sanctions for cooperation hasslowed the historic trend toward safer mines.Despite the questionable benefits bestowed bythe act, special interest groups and MSHA havesuccessfully defended it against proposals forreform. As a result, consumers and taxpayers areleft paying the substantial direct and indirectcosts of federal intervention.

The best solution may be to repeal the Mine Act. Contrary to popular belief, there are substantial incentives in place that encourage mine operators to make investments in safety. One of the most notable incentives is the compensating wage differentials that miners demand for undertaking more hazardous work. By respecting the risk-for-pay decisions made by individual miners, the federal government might be able to achieve its objective of making the nation's mines safer.

C. Gregory Ruffennach

Greg Ruffennach is a Washington DC attorney who advises mining companies on regulatory and legislative matters.