Larger Profits + Safety Shortcuts = Death

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Larger Profits + Safety Shortcuts = Death

It was a year and six weeks ago (April 5, 2010) that 29 coal miners died in a massive explosion in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, making it the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1970.

On May 19, 2011, an independent investigation commissioned by the state’s former governor reported conclusively what everybody involved already knew….that the accident was the result of safety violations by Massey management. In truth, the Upper Big Branch mine was more or less a death trap.

In the investigators’ own words, “The disaster at Upper Big Branch was man-made and could have been prevented had Massey Energy followed basic, well-tested and historically proven safety procedures." The message couldn’t be any plainer: Had Massey paid as much attention to mine safety as it did to company profits, those 29 miners would still be alive.

And it wasn’t as if safety violations were alien to the company. Indeed, Massey Energy Co. was viewed by many as a major accident waiting to happen. In the previous five years leading up to the 2010 disaster, Massey had been cited for more than 1,300 safety violations by the MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration), including poor ventilation—believed to be the cause of the explosion. In 2009 alone, Massey was cited 64 times for ventilation violations.

As Gary Hardesty, an AWPPW (Assoc. of Western Pulp & Paper Workers) safety consultant, once put it, “Because maintaining a safe facility costs money, many companies see safety only as another form of overhead.” Obviously, while Massey management bears the brunt of the blame for regarding worker safety as “overhead”—money they would just as soon not have to spend—the MSHA deserves much of the blame as well.

Blithely issuing one safety citation after another to a renegade company with a proven record of ignoring them (or getting them reduced in the appeal process) is not what a government watchdog agency is charged to do. Mechanically going through the motions of slapping a company on the wrist, and desultorily filing the necessary paperwork, is not the same as hands-on regulation an industry’s safety practices. The MSHA failed in its duty.

And, of course, there’s another component to this tragedy, one reflecting organized labor’s unfortunate loss of influence, not only in the industry but in the country at large. As anyone who’s been paying attention to the mining industry since the 1970s knows, as the percentage of union-affiliated mines continues to decline, mining accidents continue to increase. Statistics show that 92-percent of all mine accidents occur in non-union facilities.

In an interview I conducted a couple of years ago with Phil Smith, Communications Director of the United Mine Workers (UMW) International, he made it clear that U.S. mine owners are in collusion to keep miners from seeking union representation. And even though collusion is a violation of federal labor law, one that the NLRB hasn’t seriously addressed, the companies continue to do it. They do it through intimidation and old-fashioned black-balling.

Because coal mining is a close-knit community, once your name gets put on a company shit-list as a “union activist” or “union sympathizer,” it’s going to stay on that list, and you’re going to find it difficult to get hired anywhere. Coal miners might be a remarkably tough but courageous breed of worker, but, tough or not, they have to work to eat, and there are only so many mining jobs to go around. Few are willing to rock the boat.

According to Phil Smith, even on those occasions when a mine does go union, companies have been known to shut down the operation, change names by selling it off to a “phantom subsidiary,” and re-open the mine as a non-union facility. And if anyone squawks too loudly about the illegality of this arrangement, they find themselves out of a job.

So while it’s gratifying to see Massey Energy found guilty of egregious safety violations, it didn’t exactly come as a revelation. Massey management knew it all along, the miners knew it, the MSHA knew it, and the UMW knew it. Alas, the families of those 29 men learned it a year too late.

David Macaray

David Macaray

David Macaray, a former union rep, is a Los Angeles-based playwright and author - “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor” and his new “Night Shift:  270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

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