All Commentary
Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Job Safety Is Just as Much About Workers as Employers

Bottom line: workers have a lot of say about safety.

When I taught a cost/benefit analysis course, one of the topics I covered was worker safety. Using W. Kip Viscusi’s excellent entry “Job Safety” in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, I showed that there is an implicit market for safety in the workplace and that workers do a pretty good job of judging relative risks.

My whole discussion, and Kip’s, treated the safety decision as if it were totally in the hands of the employers. I implicitly assumed that employers have complete control over employees’ actions. They don’t. To have such control, employers would have to engage in detailed monitoring or set up incentives for other employees to report on workers who are putting their employees at risk.

I don’t have much of an excuse for that oversight because I experienced the contribution of other workers to my risk in the summer of 1969 when I was working in an underground nickel mine in northern Manitoba. I had 2 such experiences (#1 and #3 below) and heard about one other (#2).

1. The small story where my monitoring of another employee worked.

As an 18-year old “helper” (the job title) to a diamond driller, I was at the bottom of the totem pole. I was also the youngest of about 300 workers, all male, at a remote mine 40 miles south of Thompson, Manitoba, at a place called Soab Lake: I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out what “Soab” stood for. (I was also, with 2 years of college under my belt, the most formally educated worker in the whole camp.)

Bottom line: workers have a lot of say about safety.

One thing I learned from the first couple of diamond drillers I worked under was that when you went to a new section of the mine that had been newly blasted, you should, before setting up your diamond drill, use a heavy iron scaling bar to scale the ceiling to make sure you brought down any loose rocks overhead. The first few I worked under always did so faithfully. But about halfway through my 3 months there, a new guy came along who showed by his every action that he wanted to cut corners. So when we moved to a newly blasted section, he proceeded to set up the drill. I told him that he needed to scale first. He answered that I worked for him and that it was his call. I replied that he was right–that I did work for him–but also that he worked for Emil, the foreman. I told him I would refuse to work until we scaled and that I would go to the surface (we were on day shift) and tell Emil. He grudgingly complied.

2. The tragic story.

Fortunately, I didn’t experience this, or I wouldn’t be here to write about it. From a very early age, I’ve been one to do due diligence when entering an unknown situation. When I found out I had the job in the mine, I went to Midwest Diamond Drilling’s (the underground component was called Wescore) office in Thompson to pick up my boots, slicks (rubber pants and jacket), helmet, helmet light, and battery for my waist and was driven out that afternoon to Soab Lake. The truck driver was friendly and so I started asking him what could go wrong in the job. He told me about 2 guys who had been killed the previous week. They weren’t diamond drillers (whew!). They drilled holes, put explosives in them, set a fuse timed to go off in about 20 minutes, and then made their way to the surface. The explosion would occur when no one was around and then the next shift would come down, “muck” (clear out) the rock with a power shovel that looked somewhat like a little bulldozer, drill their holes, put in the explosives, set the fuses, etc.

From a very early age, I’ve been one to do due diligence when entering an unknown situation.

Two guys working together had run out of fuses. Getting good clean ones might take them 20 minutes–walking to the end of the drift (the horizontal section) to the “cage” (the elevator), going to the surface, getting the fuses, coming back down, and walking to the face. Easier to look around and find fuses. They found fuses that had been there some time and thought those would do. So they installed the fuses and lit them. Pfffft. The fuses burned quickly and they were killed in the explosion.

3. The somewhat humorous story—humorous ex-post only because nothing went wrong—but horrible ex-ante.

The cage was a see-through metal elevator that went quickly up and down to the various levels. (If I recall correctly, the shallowest level was 300 feet and the deepest was about 2100 or 2300 feet; there were approximately 8 levels.)

By the elevator shaft at each level was a large red light. Guys were allowed to smoke in the mine (remember that this was nickel, not coal.) But when the red light was flashing–and it was pretty obvious when it was–if you were where you could see it, you were supposed to immediately extinguish your cigarette. I never saw anyone at any of the levels not comply. Why were you supposed to extinguish your cigarette? Because the flashing light meant that the cage operator was bringing down bags of explosives. Probably no further explanation is needed.

When that happened, the cage, rather than coming down quickly, descended very slowly. It was slow enough that you could look in and see the operator and the explosives. One time, we were waiting to come up at the end of a shift and the red light was on. The guy for whom I was the “helper” put out his cigarette. As the cage came by I looked in and saw the cage elevator sitting on the bags of explosives–and calmly smoking a cigarette.

Bottom line: workers have a lot of say about safety.

Reprinted from Library of Economics and Liberty.

  • David Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund) and blogs at