Do you think coal mining would have become safer in America without the government?

I have been reading a bit about bituminous coal mining in western Pennsylvania, in connection with researching Stephan Pajersky and my western Pennsylvania family.

We people of these times know that coal mining was tough. The chance of dying was high. The chance of crippling industry was, of course, higher. In the year my great grandfather died in a mine (1930), do you know what the injury to death rate was? Fifty to one. And about 1.67 deaths per million manhours worked.

Mining is a lot safer today, but it is not entirely safe. Where there used to be thousands of deaths in my grandfather’s day, the number is in the dozens. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration keeps the stats.

When I started looking into numbers about coal mining, I didn’t expect to find very much, actually. It seemed like a tragic fact that the coal mining companies would have wanted to keep under wraps. They were great at union busting in Pennsylvania, that is for sure. When you read about the Westmoreland County Coal Strike of 100 years ago, you wonder whether the immigrant Slovaks weren’t any better off than slaves. And that was after the American Civil War, and after the 13th amendment was ratified.

Pennsylvania’s ugly history of harboring and promoting disreputable characters didn’t start with contemporary villains like Jerry Sandusky or Mark Ciavarella. This state has a long history of smelly characters, and in the coal mining era there was no exception. I was reading about the Coal and Iron Police, which were, essentially, a state-endorsed private industrial police. The Coal and Iron Police would go around attacking strikers whenever a union strike was called, and did not stop short of murder.

The irony is that the Pennsylvania State Police was formed in 1905 in order to bring this kind of police function back under the state government (not private). But when the force was organized, it tended to be one that was manipulated by the coal companies to do worse mayhem than the Coal and Iron Police had done! You wonder how Pennsylvania political history would have been different if, say, Puritan stocks (or the guillotine) had been installed in Harrisburg, rather than this be a state settled by peaceful farmers who, unfortunately, never took civic duty seriously. (To me, this led to the rise of these robber-baron corporations of the late 19th and the 20th centuries. But I digress again . . . )

But Pennsylvania government does at least score a few points with me for this website, which attempts to list the names of every man (or woman) who died in the coal mines. I did find my great-grandfather in one record, so I trust it is an accurate list. The list is actually the work of a man named Shepard. He gave the data to the state.

You know that the list would have been a lot shorter if the feds had clamped down on Pennsylvania in the 1900’s, rather than during the New Deal, but this is especially the kind of place where, to quote Alfredo in Cinema Paradiso, “progress always comes too late”.

[More as I find relevant items.]

[Update 12/4/11: According to statistics compiled by the federal government in 1932 (at the end of the Hoover administration), five workers died in mines in Clarion County during 1930. Nineteen thirty is one of the first years that these type of statistics were produced at the federal level.

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