Thursday, May 5, 2011

Some workers face danger for our convenience

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The coal industry was already under assault from environmentalists, regulators, renewable-energy advocates and others. Now, safe-work advocates have again joined them.

Another reality is this: Americans have not come to grips with what should replace coal or come up with a list of luxuries they are willing to forego to make a post-coal world possible.

And so every day, thousands literally descend into the Appalachia earth to do the dirty work that allows others to turn on their computers to debate the miners' fate.

The information economy has given us a massive division of labor, a growing chasm between the majority, whose biggest on-job worry is eye strain or carpal tunnel syndrome, and those who go to work every day in truly dangerous jobs. As we move further from our agricultural and industrial pasts, more Americans have no firsthand knowledge of the perilous work that keeps the power on, the pantry full, the goods moving.

The more this is so, the more indifferent society becomes to efforts to make these jobs less dangerous. And the easier it becomes to forget – or worse, to stigmatize – the miners or farmers or construction workers or other blue-collar Americans as casualties of our cravings for air conditioning, high-speed Internet and gourmet foods.

Mining's history is marked by the tragedies like the one at the Massey Energy Co. mine in Montcoal, W.Va., that killed more than two dozen miners or the recent series of deadly mining accidents and dramatic rescues in China, which lost more than 2,600 coal miners last year.

The Massey explosion caused the largest American mining death total in 26 years. Tragedies like this pique our interest as we watch the familiar scenes of grieving families in a devastated community play out on our 24-hour cable. Almost all the big pushes in mining safety have come in bursts after disasters like this.

But eventually we move on to mundane complaints, like traffic on the way to comfortable white-collar jobs, while delaying the transitions that some say are necessary to make the planet cleaner and safer.

Surprisingly, mining wasn't even among the top 10 most dangerous jobs in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top five, based on deaths per 100,000 workers, were fishermen, loggers, airline pilots, iron and steel workers, and farmers and ranchers – in that order. They were followed by refuse and recyclable material collectors, roofers, electrical power line installers and repairers, truck drivers, and taxi drivers and chauffeurs. The roads, on which our economy still depends mightily, are never safe.

When I was growing up on a family farm in Castlewood, S.D., a fourth-grade boy died a mile from my grandparents' farm when the tractor he was driving overturned on him. In recent years, one local farmer and one from a neighboring community suffocated in quicksand-like grain bins.

The popular culture still produces this quaint, bucolic imagery of farming, but industrialization long ago turned it into a job of big machines and moving parts. Rare is the farmer who goes through life with all fingers intact.

As a West Virginia mining community buries its dead, its grief should not vanish with the flip of a switch.

Chuck Raasch writes from Washington for Gannett. Contact him at, follow him at or join in the conversation at

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