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MSHA: What’s the Real Impact of Fines on Mine Safety?

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Late in 2014, MSHA made headlines when an investigation revealed that nearly $70 million in health and safety penalties had yet to be paid by mining company owners. The joint investigation by news agency NPR and Mine Safety and Health News found that most of these unpaid penalties were between two and 10 years overdue.

In response to the pressure that followed this report, a federal investigation was launched that will focus on the penalty assessment and collection process at MSHA. More recently, a similar report by SNL Energy showed that U.S. coal producers owed more than $62 million in unpaid health and safety violations fines. Again, most of these citations were at least two years old. So why has MSHA not collected this money?

Typically, the process goes like this: MSHA issues a fine. Once the company has been notified, mine operators have 30 days to pay the fine. Fines that are more than 180 days past due are referred to the Treasury Department (or a Treasury-designated collection center). Approximately three-quarters of these unpaid fines are sitting with the Treasury.

The Million-Dollar Question

For many, MSHA’s inability to ensure the collection of these fines calls the agency’s authority into question. After all, why bother trying to avoid a fine that you’ll never have to pay anyway?

But all this fuss over unpaid fines prompts another question with potentially larger implications. Whether they are paid or unpaid, what impact do fines like these actually have on worker safety?

This can be a controversial question, and on both sides of the fence you’ll find safety professionals with strong opinions on the matter, and strong arguments to back up those opinions. Rather than reiterate these arguments, let’s look at the issue from a different perspective: a psychological one.

The Psychology of Punishment

When we look to psychology, fines are a classic example of what B.F. Skinner would have called “negative punishment,” which is a type of operant conditioning. What is operant conditioning, you ask? It’s a form of learning that attempts to control behavior using either positive or negative consequences. Negative punishment is used to discourage an undesired behavior: namely, in this instance, unsafe behavior and safety violations.

Negative punishment can be effective. It’s relied upon around the world in circumstances that range from courts of law to kindergarten classrooms. However, there are a number of concerns that are associated with this type of enforcement. For one thing, the punished behavior is not forgotten or internalized as inherently undesirable. Instead, the behavior is merely suppressed in order to avoid a negative outcome. In other words, when the punishment is no longer present, the behavior is very likely to return. This may be exactly what we’re seeing with a number of mine operators.

The same NPR investigation that uncovered these unpaid fines discovered another frightening industry truth: the mines that don’t pay their penalties are significantly more dangerous than mines that do pay, and they have injury rates that are 50 percent higher. In fact, these delinquent mines reported nearly 4,000 injuries in the years that they failed to pay their fines, while continuing to break the law (racking up more than 130,000 violations). For these mines, the threat of punishment appears to no longer be present.

Where Does This Leave Us?

What we know is that the threat of fines alone does not appear to work for the specific subset of the industry mentioned above. Yet, most mine operators do pay their penalties. The NPR investigation found that delinquent mines account for just 7 percent of the coal, metals and mineral mining companies in the US.

Of course, any safety professional worth their salt will jump to point out that there are reasons beyond the financial for championing workplace safety. The majority of mine operators also recognize this fact and are doing their utmost to ensure a safe working environment for their employees. They would continue to do this even without the threat of fines hanging over their heads.

This brings us back to the same question. What’s the real impact of fines on worker safety?

What do you think?

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