Safety and OSHA News

Mine disaster: Hazards hidden, production over safety

An official from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) delivered a stinging indictment of the operators of the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in West Virginia where 29 miners were killed in an explosion.

MSHA’s complete report on its investigation isn’t expected until this fall, but the agency briefed family members of the deceased miners on June 28 and released preliminary information to the media a day later.

The report accuses Massey Energy, the operator of the mine at the time of the explosion, of keeping two sets of books with hazards recorded in internal documents but kept out of records required by MSHA.

It’s also alleged that UBB managers pressured their internal examiners to not record hazards in the books. MSHA has referred those cases to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.

MSHA also looked into miner training records for the two years leading up to the deadly explosion. It found 205 instances of training deficiencies, including:

  • 104 miners didn’t complete required “experience miner” training, and
  • 42 miners didn’t receive training before being required to perform a new task.

The preliminary information also echoes earlier reports that miners were intimidated into keeping quiet about safety.

A foreman was fired for stopping work for an hour to fix a ventilation problem. Despite dozens of citations from MSHA in the years before the disaster, there was only one instance of a miner calling the agency’s confidential hotline to report a safety problem.

MSHA listed four failures in its preliminary conclusions about what contributed to the explosion. Three of them were technical reasons, and the fourth was “emphasis on productivity to the detriment of safety.”

Many questions remain unanswered, including this one: Why didn’t MSHA use its authority to shut down the mine despite years of serious citations against it? MSHA says part of its investigation will eventually address what the agency itself could have done better.

Do you think, given evidence that Massey covered up safety problems and intimidated workers, that the mine’s managers should face criminal prosecution? Should MSHA be more aggressive in shutting down hazardous mines? Let us know what you think in the Comments Box below.

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  1. Jack Kinnemann says:

    If you killed 29 people they would prosecute you right?

  2. Dean Morgan says:

    Shutting down the mines are not the answer. These mines represent jobs and provide an important service and in many cases are the only show in town. The companies make a profit and have a willing and steady workforce, why are they failing to fully train their people and make a commitment to safety. The obvious answer is safety does not produce a product, but the leadership has to realize their importance. Cooking the books, firing Foremen and controlling the workers with the fear of losing their jobs. Getting new mangement, from everyone aware of the double records and all of the other dirt. Send to jail the worst offenders, fine them and remove some from supervisory positions. You can’t fire them all but you must get their attention and lay the ground work for more oversite and make them pay for it.

  3. Getreal says:

    Massey Energy was totally to blame for this disaster and their attempted cover-up proves it. Two sets of safety records? Not only are they corrupt, they are stupid.
    As for the mine’s managers facing prosecution – yes. They not only went along with what they knew to be illegal or strongly suspected was illegal, they initiated much of the illegalities. I’d say these people should be tossed in the slammer for the rest of their lives but the taxpayers would wind up footing that bill. How about they have to work for nothing as miners, probably right next to relatives of some of the people their negligence killed?

  4. Safety Steve says:

    While Massey shares some of the blame on this incident what about MSHA? They were in that mine every day sometimes on two shifts but did not use the tools they had at their disposal. As far as training, a recent report showed that a large number of MSHA inspectors had not completed their required training to enter the mine.
    Every miner knows they can call MSHA to report a safety problem at a mine. MSHA by law is required to protect the reporting person and investigate the complaint. These very experienced miners know what is safe and what isn’t. IF complaints had been made to MSHA about safety concerns what did they do about it? We may never find out if changes are made at MSHA to improve their operation. Don’t confuse MSHA with safety, they are a regulatory law enforcement agency. They need to get back to the safety side of protecting miners.

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