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I really enjoy watching Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel. The show tracks a half-dozen major fishing boats as they journey around the Bering Sea exploring for crab during various seasons. The upcoming “Opie” season is among the most treacherous – there are only short time-spans when the crab-fishing season runs (we should blog that in the future – it can be a major problem), and the major fishing grounds are sometimes 400 miles from the nearest convenient port. The winter fishing season is home to near-hurricane storms, bringing 40 foot seas to bear on boats and fishermen, who often have to fish during the worst of the storms.

The point being is that the job is risky. Coal mining is risky. Lots of jobs are risky. Think about what happens if a worker is injured on a fishing boat or in a coal mining accident. In the aftermath of such an event you are sure to see calls for “compensation for the victims” and almost surely going to see some lawsuit brought against the company. If we can make the polite assumption that coal mining companies and fishing boat owners are not negligent/fraudulent in providing (or not) some amount of safety, then what can we make of such calls?

Plainly they are extraneous. I know our hearts wrench when we see accidents, and our sensibilities would like to see those injured on the job paid if they are to be injured. But if you think about the basics of price theory, and if you look at the raw data, we know that risky jobs (holding other characteristics constant) pay better than safer jobs. We can write down a simple model to illustrate if you like. Since job safety is a good like any other, that safety is often “paid for” by workers who are more willing to supply their labor to those jobs than riskier ones – forcing wages down in the safe jobs and wages up in risky ones. These wages will continue to move apart until the difference in wages across jobs “compensates” workers for taking on the added risks.

In other words, the folks who are working on the fishing boats and in the coal mines have already been compensated. To award them extra payments  on top of what they are already have put away by taking the risky job would make it more “profitable” to enter the crabbing or coal mining industry than any others. Guess what happens once you do that? Who “wins” in that situation? Who “loses”?

There are a lot of places one can head with this idea. For now, I’ll end with this simple one. If you think workers on crab boats should have a lot of money awarded to them in the event of an injury, then it is trivial to ask them to take their surplus wages and buy a disability/workplace injury insurance program that does the same thing that the supposed lawsuit or transfer from taxpayer resources would do. If you do not see workers in these industries doing it, what does that tell us about those workers? Furthermore, if you do some data digging and you find that workers on crab boats and in coal mines do not earn more than comparably skilled jobs with less risk, what does that suggest about the policy environment we are living in?

4 Responses to “Coal Miners and Cave-Ins”

  1. chuck martel says:

    I have no knowledge of coal mining but crab boat crewmen, and most other fishermen, are paid a percentage of the catch rather than a wage. Success in that game is very much dependent on the abilities of the skipper, good ones have guys standing in line to get on their crew. And these hard-driving captains have their pick of the best crewmen as well.

    Commercial fishing is one of the more interesting human endeavors because it rewards hard work and innovative, imaginative thinking more than any other. The once-great American tuna fleet, for instance, was created by ideas of one man, Mario Puretic, who invented the “power block”, which made the mechanical hauling of large seines possible. Much of the thinking about how processes work attempts to eliminate the human element. Large organizations like the military, the post office, big corporations, etc. establish procedures to define operations and minimize decision-making. This fails to take into account the fact that there’s no equality in human’s ability to evaluate risk and that the interpretation of information and subsequent response is a highly individualistic attribute. The stories of exceptional personalities in the realm of government and politics are quite familiar. Yet the influence of personalities in other areas, like commercial fishing, are somehow ignored. I guarantee you that you can get a pretty accurate ranking of the Kodiak crab fleet skippers in just one even at the B & B Bar.

  2. Harry says:

    Well, we have workmen’s comp, mandated insurance for at least forty years, and before that you would have been stupid going out in a small boat without buying some life insurance and a disability policy, forget about it was paid with pre-tax dollars, assuming you had a family with a couple of kids.

    I once had an “opportunity” to go into a coal mine on analysis, and engineered my schedule so I was unavailable; I probably would have quit before going into the mine, no matter how many parakeets. Lucky for me, there was a world of opportunity better than going down in a coal mine. Being a potato picker in Idaho would surpass picking coal.

  3. Harry says:

    Oops, once again I forgot to answer WC’s question, which was about the policy environment in which our elected and unelected officials are enmired up to their thighs in BS.

    Speaking of BS, I personally did a lot of work to keep the bull pen clean, inside and outside. But talking about hazardous jobs, the guy who came around to collect semen from a 2600-pound bull was as brave as any crab fisherman, or any matador. OSHA would be concerned about the liquid nitrogen, and whether he used rubber gloves.

    I would pick that job before going down into the coal mine:

  4. Harry says:

    Not to be WC’s sixth poster, I can think off the top of my head at least two dozen times of close brushes with death, not counting driving a car. Maybe not death, as in falling off the back of the top of a fully stacked hay wagon when I landed like a cat, but it would surely kill me today. These are the ones I remember. Wintercow’s piece earlier on Chesterson and saying grace rang a loud bell.

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