Lies, Damned Lies and Employers

Don Blankenship, the man ultimately in charge of Massey Energy’s West Virginia mine where 29 workers died in an explosion April 5, assured financial analysts last week that safety is paramount in his operation.

Massey, the country’s fourth largest mining company, issued a statement that same day asserting that a review of conditions in the Upper Big Branch mine uncovered no problems shortly before the blast that killed more workers than any other mine disaster in nearly four decades.

All that could only mean one thing, right? Massey did nothing wrong and bears no responsibility. So clearly the disaster was an act of God or an omission by workers. God killed them. Or they killed themselves. Blankenship suggested that in earlier interviews and repeated it to stock analysts last week:

Obviously, I don’t want to speculate, but either something went wrong from a natural/unnatural manner that was not foreseeable by us or human beings or somebody made a mistake or something.”

That contention — that God’s hand or worker blunder caused a disaster — is a bogus employer excuse that managers frequently dredge up. The supervisor of the Westray Mine in Canada, where 26 workers died in an explosion in 1992, did the same thing. A government-commissioned report on that catastrophe recounts that manager, Gerald Phillips, “blatently blamed the miners for the explosion.” It’s a refrain that might be repeated in the aftermath of the Tesoro refinery blast on April 2 that killed seven workers and the explosion on the Transocean Ltd. oil offshore oil drilling platform on April 20 that killed 11 workers.

It’s a lie. And when workers die, it’s a damned lie. Employers are responsible for maintaining safe working environments. Yet, across this country, 14 workers are killed on the job every day. The American people and their government must hold employers accountable. Or the workplace killing will never stop.

Employers routinely attempt to dodge culpability. Blankenship spouted the “I-am-not-responsible” talking points in his telephone call with financial analysts. He swore to them with reassuring double negatives:

“It’s not due to us not being focused on safety, not having a strong safety culture, not putting safety first. Some of the implications have been that we don’t focus on safety or we put dollars in front of safety, and nothing could be further from the truth.”

Blankenship has also said incidents are “unfortunately an inevitable part of the mining process,” suggesting they just happen like hurricanes or tornados; no one can control them.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore oil rigs like the one that exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico this month, blames workers as well. MMS is writing rules requiring rig operators to prevent human error. This follows an MMS report on the 41 deaths and 302 injuries on oil rigs between 2001 and 2007 that said:

“It appears that equipment failure is rarely the primary cause of the incident or accident.”

This is the same MMS whose inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, said suffered from a pervasive “culture of ethical failure.” In three reports to Congress in 2008, Devaney portrayed MMS as, the New York Times said, “a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch.”

It is not surprising that MMS blames workers when, the New York Times noted, eight MMS officials accepted expensive gifts from energy companies. These exceeded values set in federal ethical regulations. And several MMS officials, the Times said:

“Frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.”

Regulators for mines and refineries take an entirely different view from MMS. Kevin Stricklin, the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health, said while at Upper Big Branch:

“All explosions are preventable. It’s just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring.”

That is management’s responsibility.

Similarly, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not blame workers for explosions at refineries. To prevent catastrophes, OSHA requires refineries to implement a system called process safety, which is a mixture of engineering and management focused on prevention. After a 2005 blast at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas that killed 15 workers and injured 170, OSHA launched a two-year program to emphasize process safety at refineries.

Afterward, OSHA director of enforcement Richard Fairfax reported:

“We are pretty shocked and dismayed by what we found.”

OSHA’s review of 14 refineries in the first year found 1,517 violations, including 1,489 for process safety.

While MMS contends “human error,” caused incidents on oil rigs, inspections by MMS and the Coast Guard over the past three years of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico found problems such as repair crews working without proper permitting in hazardous areas, inoperable gas detectors and faulty firefighting equipment. These examples of management recklessness are listed in a Houston Chronicle story by Lise Olsen titled, “Blood a part of oil’s price.”

Similarly, former United Mine Workers union President John L. Lewis said coal was washed in the tears of widows. In West Virginia where there are two dozen new coal widows, Blankenship repeatedly has said Upper Big Branch was as safe as other mines and that citations for violations are just a routine part of the mining business.

A review by Ellen Smith, owner of Mine Safety and Health News, showed, however, that Upper Big Branch had a violation rate 30 percent higher than the average underground bituminous coal mine. In addition, a Massey subsidiary, Aracoma, pleaded guilty to criminal charges of willful violation of mandatory safety standards in the 2006 deaths of two miners.

President Obama had this to say about culpability:

“This tragedy was triggered by a failure at the Upper Big Branch Mine, a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled will loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue. Owners responsible for conditions in the Upper Big Branch Mine should be held accountable for decisions they made and preventive measures they failed to take. And I’ve asked [Labor] Secretary [Hilda] Solis to work with the Justice Department to ensure that every tool in the federal government is available in this investigation.”

Even in the 1800s, managers tried to evade blame by placing it on God and workers. Mine inspector Thomas K. Adams noted that blame shifting in an article published in 1900 by the journal Mine and Minerals:

“During such distressing events [as mine disasters] we have, as usual, a plenteous crop of apologists and general utility men who appear . . . Those men are very resourceful in offering all kinds of excuses for those who are possibly responsible for such calamities. They will tell us about the subtle agencies in operation in nature’s storehouse, the mysteries which wiser men than Solomon cannot unravel and that those mine explosions are the unavoidable and natural accompaniments which gives harmony to the coal-mining industry.”

Adams went on:

“Such rot has no weight with intelligent mining men, of course, but dupes there be everywhere.”

Today is Workers Memorial Day, an occasion to mourn those killed in the workplace, to condemn the lying about culpability and to demand corporate accountability.

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