A regular SafetyAtWorkBlog reader emailed in a comment this morning that we believe is justified as including it as a post itself. The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster is out of the news outside of the United States but as the Australian reader shows below, there are important lessons from how this disaster occurred and its aftermath as there is in most disasters. What needs to occur is for the issues to continue to be discussed and lessons applied. Some links in the post below have been added.
“I’ve been following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster West Virginia, in which 29 miners died from an explosion that occurred on 5 April 2010. It appears that the explosion occurred due to a build up of methane and coal dust in the mine. Records show that, in the weeks leading up to the explosion, some miners had expressed fears for their lives to their families. One left a note for his family. To my thinking it reads like a suicide note.
The latest demand by Massey Energy that the Mining Safety and Health Authority (MSHA) hold public hearings came after it became apparent that informants have come forward with allegations of Massey bribing and intimidating mine inspectors. This echoes their previous union busting activities, achieved through the same kinds of tactics. Apparently it is feared that they would also apply those tactics to anyone who provided the inquiry with information.
I recently commented that I had never come across, and didn’t really believe in the ‘monster’ organisation that has all the negative characteristics that theoretically create the conditions that lead to such incidents and resultant injuries and loss of life. Massey’s operations and the attitudes and actions of CEO Don Blankenship, as reported, have forced me to review this stance.
Blankenship is implicated as the driver behind significant and repeat violations of safety standards – many concerning the accumulation of methane, inadequate mine ventilation and a failure to ‘rock dust’ potentially explosive coal dust. (for a LOT of detailed reporting on Massey and WV mining generally see ‘Coal Tattoo’ a blog by Ken Ward Jr in the West Virginia Gazette. There has also been some in-depth coverage in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal)
Blankenship is emerging as a perfect example of all that could possibly be wrong with the leadership and management of a company engaged in the extremely high risk industry of extracting high quality bitumen rich coal. A ‘Robber Baron’ mentality, “production first” directives and confrontational and avoidance approach to MSHA directives gave rise to safety failures on a staggering scale.
But this incident has clearly got well beyond the capacity of Blankenship and Massey to exert damage control. They are, of course, claiming excellence in safety. Blankenship is calling his critics ‘evil’. Massey has hired a huge PR outfit to manage their every interaction and utterance. Massey has an annual general meeting on 15 May – it will be interesting to see if the shareholders dare to unseat some directors or recommend that Blankenship be sacked. To quote one activist shareholder group (as reported in Coal Tattoo)
““Massey’s alarming record of regulatory non-compliance and corporate governance failures make a clear immediate case for shareholder action to remove these directors…. The CtW Investment Group first raised significant concerns regarding corporate governance problems in a March 31, 2010 letter to Massey’s lead independent director, Admiral Bobby R. Inman, six days before the April 5 explosion, to which Admiral Inman last night. In the past three years, four directors have resigned from Massey’s board – two explicitly citing the company’s poor environmental and safety record – the latest coming from Lady Barbara Thomas Judge, who stepped down from the board on April 19, 2010.”
Blankenship is an accountant. He is also a right-wing ideologue. He has become enormously wealthy, powerful and connected to like-minded US industrialists who share his philosophies. Will they stand by him and support his continuing management of Massey Energy? Which will win – substance or spin? And will it make any difference in the long run. Valuable mineral resources attract exploiters – not persons whose minds are on preventing loss of human health and life as a primary priority.”