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.