Overburden exposes the social burden of workplace death and illness

On 26 February 2016, a recent documentary about a portion of the American coal-mining industry, Overburden, was shown with a panel discussion, as part of the Transitions Film Festival in Melbourne. The film is commonly promoted as an environmental film but it also touches on

  • Corporate and executive arrogance;
  • A complete disregard to worker safety;
  • Excessive influence of industry lobbyists in the political process;
  • The socio-economic impacts of allowing an industrial monopoly;
  • Personal perspectives of risk.

The trailer hints at some of these issues. (A traditional mainstream review of the film is available HERE)

The panel drew direct lines between the Appalachian issues raised in the film with the socio-economic issues in Victoria’s LaTrobe Valley that resulted from the Hazelwood Mine Fire.

Personal Journey

The film follows two women on a journey into and through activism.  One women, Betty, who, in the trailer, describes coal as a natural resource that exists to be mined at the start of the film has an ideological awakening but not one that changes he initial position.  Betty’s activism over worker safety is created when her brother is killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine collapse in 2010.  She does not become anti-coal, she becomes anti-exploitative companies with her focus being on the Upper Big Branch Mine owner, Massey Energy, and its controversial chief executive, Don Blankenship.

We find, later in the film, that the environmental passion of the other woman featured in the film, Lorelei, was also sparked by a worker safety issues when her husband died of Black Lung, also called coal miner’s pneumoconiosis.  This issue is particularly topical in Australia at the moment after a Senate Inquiry was recently announced into the disease.

Similar personal journeys are occurring weekly in Australia where the families of young people who have died at work have their activism switch flicked on by the injustice of the death, the attitudes of business to occupational health and safety (OHS) and, increasingly the heartlessness of the workers’ compensation schemes and/or the insurance agents.

Corporate disdain of OHS

The immorality of Don Blankenship is only touched on in this documentary as the film’s focus is on Lorelei and Betty but the career of Don Blankenship and particularly his sacrificing of worker safety for profits should be obligatory reading for everyone interested in OHS as Blankenship’s attitudes are echoed in many industries around the world.

Many safety people rejoiced when Blankenship was found guilty in December 2015 one misdemeanour charge of conspiring to wilfully violate mine safety and health standards.  Overburden shows how Blankenship operated two books of safety records – one for the company and a different one for mine safety inspectors.

Rolling Stone magazine, and Overburden, showed correspondence from Blankenship that illustrated his disdain for worker safety:

“…..Blankenship appeared to order the superintendents of Massey’s mines to ignore safety concerns in favor of increasing production. “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever), you need to ignore them and run coal,” Blankenship told them. “This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills.”

The example of Don Blankenship needs to be understood if one is ever going to understand the passion that people have over worker safety and the suspicions that they hold over Executives and corporations.

Local parallels

The panel for the Melbourne showing included Greg Foyster, Tom Doig and Deborah Hart, who discussed the politics of coal, the international climate change perspective and the personal horrors of life under a rain of ash in the Latrobe Valley.  It is likely that the social and economic impacts of the Hazelwood Mine Fire are not going away any time soon and the situation could become Victoria’s own case study of environmental and social damage in a similar way to the Appalachian towns in the United States.

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Kevin Jones

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