(Photo from Trends International)
West Virginia mourns yet again today as the worst possible news emerged from deep within the Upper Big Branch Mine where searches found the bodies of four missing miners, raising the total death count in this week’s mine disaster to 29. This tragedy followed another mine explosion in China, this one with a good result as more than 100 miners were saved, but China loses thousands of miners annually in similar accidents.
The horrific tragedy in West Virginia is a stark reminder of the plain fact that modern civilization, with all of its technological advances and amazing amenities, still relies heavily on the willingness of men (mining is still mostly a male occupation) to go deep inside the earth, into dark and dangerous places, to remove the coal that fires the power plants that produce the electricity that powers our lights and air conditioners and televisions and computers and iPod chargers. Coal still provides more than half of the fuel necessary for electrical generation in this country.
In this age of advanced technology, why must coal mining still use human labor? Coal mining is at the top of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Can’t robots do this work today? A recent ABC News story explained that even with advanced robotics, machines simply cannot substitute yet for the power of human observation and judgment.
The “human factor” is also a major reason why mining remains so dangerous. Mine operators repeatedly and insouciantly avoid, reject, ignore, subvert and otherwise defeat federal mining regulations and inspections. Massey Energy and its CEO Don Blankenship lead the list in rebuffing safety inspections and regulation. The Massey Company is currently contesting 3700 violations before the Federal Mine Safety Commission.
At at time when most Americans are worried about other issues — taxes are due this week, what will health care reform mean for me, will that college acceptance come today, will the Nationals do better this year — the topic of mine safety and federal regulation seems pretty remote, certainly, someone else’s concern. In fact, given our collective reliance on the results of mining, we should be paying a lot more attention even as we should honor mine workers for their essential contributions to modern life.
“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.”
Next time you make a phone call on your freshly charged cell phone, thank a coal miner for risking life and limb to produce the raw fuel that generated the electrical power to make it all work.