Safety and OSHA News

29 miner deaths ‘entirely preventable’ — root cause is ‘corporate culture’

Federal authorities blamed the Upper Big Branch (UBB) Mine disaster that killed 29 miners on “a workplace culture that valued production over safety,” and said the explosion was “entirely preventable.” Haven’t we heard this before about workplace disasters that claimed multiple lives?

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) says on April 5, 2010, a massive coal dust explosion started as a methane ignition.

While that’s the technical reason for the disaster, MSHA says the mine’s owner, “PCC/Massey promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.”

Also, “miners were intimidated by UBB management and were told that raising safety concerns would jeopardize their jobs.”

When workers needed extra time to resolve safety issues which delayed production, UBB officials issued “threats of retaliation and disciplinary actions.”

MSHA issued 369 citations to the mine’s owners with $10.8 million in civil penalties, the largest fine in the agency’s history by far.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in West Virginia also entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the mine’s new owner, Alpha Natural Resources. The agreement includes nearly $210 million for:

  • remedial safety measures at all Alpha mines
  • a trust fund for improvements in mine safety and health
  • payment of outstanding civil penalties for all former Massey mines
  • restitution payments of $1.5 million for each of the victims’ families.

The agreement absolves Alpha from criminal prosecution, but does not provide protection against criminal prosecution of any individuals.

And criminal prosecution of former Massey management appears likely. “We will continue to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to ensure that the responsible parties will be brought to justice,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, whose department oversees MSHA.

Haven’t we been here before?

When it comes to workplace safety disasters that claim multiple lives, there seems to be a pattern:

  • The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers was caused by seven company practices including BP’s “cost- or time-saving decisions without considering contingencies and mitigation.”
  • Pressure to resume production was a key factor in an explosion at the Bayer CropScience pesticide manufacturing plant in West Virginia that killed two workers, according to a government report.
  • The explosion at BP’s Texas City, TX, refinery in 2005 that killed 15 employees was due in part to serious deficiencies in the company’s safety culture, according to the investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Government officials hope criminal prosecution of those responsible for these tragedies will send a message to companies that they must place worker safety over production.

Do you think stiff prison sentences for former executives at Massey will help prevent future disasters that claim the lives of multiple workers? Let us know what you think in the comments box below.

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  1. Harsh criminal penalties in this case are well deserved, and they will have a deterrent effect on executives in profitable businesses. However, once profits begin to slide, many execs will once again trade worker safety for productivity. That’s why we need regulators.

  2. Criminal prosecution of individuals and corporate officers and enormous fines for the company are in order when it is determined that production trumps over safety. Companies estimate the cost of compliance vs. the cost in fines and punitive damages that may be incurred and make the decision that the profitability of heightened production outweighs the possible risk of safety fines and damages. However, implementing and following through with criminal prosecution of individuals and executives will give major pause to those bad players and strengthen worker safety especially in dangerous industries such as oil and coal.

  3. According to MSHA they opened an inspection at the mine on 4/1/10 and didn’t close the inspection until 6/1/10. How did this disaster happen under the watchful eye of MSHA actually conducting an inspection that started 4 days prior to the disaster?

    Going further back in the inspection history shows just how inadequate MSHA is to actually prevent issues. Prior to this incident MSHA had conucted at least 10 inspections of that same mine in 2010 alone. Starting January 6 2010 there was an inspection resulting in 101 citations. In April (after the incident) there was another inspection resulting in 503 citations. Did the company really have that many more issues, or were the regulators simply not finding the issues that they are paid by taxpayers to identify?

    Previous histories for the number of citations for Regular Safety and Health Inspections were 58, 149, 119, and 91. These were from inspections dating back to January 2009. Why did the regulators only find 101 citations 3 months prior to the incident and then find 503 after the incident? Seems to me that they were letting stuff go and only decided to make it an issue AFTER those people got hurt. MSHA deserves blame in this incident as well as the company. If heads are rolling at the former company, they should be rolling at MSHA as well.

  4. As a former coal miner and UMW member I have to say that both parties are responsible. It is very easy to blame evil management, however I know from personal experience that sometimes the biggest obstacles to safety are the miners themselves who resist change and who sometimes are determined to do things ‘the way they have always been done’ and who sometimes have the fatalistic attitude that ‘when your time comes it comes’. ‘management is at fault in that it does not challenge this perception and way of doing things fearing a backlash which could affect labor peace and productivity.

  5. Monetary penalties are minor annoyances. To change current business culture will require a few corporate execs to spend significant time in prison (a real prison in a cell with bars, not a golf resort type facility). After a few examples, the remaining execs might start changing their business plans.

    That said, I also expect political connections will keep these corporate execs from ever being held accountable. A hefty campaign contribution buys many favors. Politicians pressure the Directors of regulatory agencies into giving inspectors “priorities” that keep them busy elsewhere.

    If inspectors were allowed to do their jobs and agency directors supported their findings with real penalties, post-accident investigations wouldn’t produce 369 violations.

  6. How soon we forget. Everyone thinks the Management was extremely terrible for Massey. There are indications that Management could just as well have thought everything was peachy:

    “Six months before 29 workers died in its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, owner Massey Energy received three Sentinels of Safety awards from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).”

    MSHA clearly thought that the company was worthy of safety awards, and yet management was supposed to think that there was a pending catastrophe on the horizon?

    If inspectors who were not doing their jobs were fired and agency directors were not handing out safety awards to companies with serious issues incidents like this would be prevented.

    If management is to go to jail for this incident, then so too should the regulators who were singing their praises a short 6 months earlier.

  7. The BP oil rig that dumped all that oil in the Gulf of Mexico and killed all those people had received an award for a safe operation not long before the explosion. In addition the executives in the companies that managed the oil rig received bonuses for meeting their safety targets for the year.

    I found the above offensive as there were deaths and an environmental disaster that affected a whole eco-system. I also work in a large organization and there would have been no bonuses at all for that year and probably there would have been (at the least) some very severe reprimands. I had commented on that in the articles that made the above known in this publication.

    Indicators and statistics can give an impression that is not the true reflection of what needs attention. Awards for past performance can be good but they also can give folk a false sense of security.

    In high risk professions careful attention to details and on-going risk assessments can provide for a safer work environment. However safety has to be a major priority for organization as well as a major part of the cooperate culture. Instead all too frequently deadlines and cost containment take the major priority (sadly) to the determent of all.

    When Safety Management is given only lip service then the rot is there waiting to destroy lives and the environment possibility setting up situations that cannot be corrected easily or effectively. It also needs to be remembered that regulators are frequently reviewing paperwork and inspecting what is happening during the inspection itself. They have little to go on in particular when a cooperate culture that indicates one thing while promoting another.

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