Across America, people are dying for work. It’s not because they’re unemployed. It’s because they work for corporations that don’t care if they die.
Every day, 12 workers die on the job in America – often because a corporation has defied regulations or ignored standard safety procedures. Many more die prematurely from work exposure to toxic materials.
If corporations are people, as Mitt Romney and the Republican majority on the Supreme Court claim, then their privileges as humans come with the responsibility to act humanely. Corporate-people must fulfill their obligations to workers and communities. Profit can’t be their sole raison d’etre. That’s not how it is with flesh-and-blood people. If it were, then society would condone profit-motivated murder, like killing a parent for insurance money. Now that they’re people, corporations have an even greater duty to prevent deaths on the job. And if they don’t, they must be held accountable in criminal court the same way a money-grubbing son would be if he murdered his parents for the life insurance.
“In all of these cases, safety procedures were bypassed or standard operating procedures were ignored due to pressures on plant personnel to save time and/or money.”
There it is – the profit factor. Making money trumping worker survival. Occasionally, people accept risk when personal gain is held out as a possibility. But in the workplace, corporations take the gains while imposing the risks on workers. Barrett put it this way:
“And in all cases, the brunt of the consequences was borne by those who did not share in the economic rewards of the corporate non-compliance (with regulations).”
By Jim Hightower
Author, Commentator, America’s Number One Populist
Every day on the job, hundreds of miners descend deep into the earth. And every time they go down, each of them wonders: “Will I make it back to the top today?”
These days, though, miners and their families are wondering if federal prosecutors will make it to the top – wondering whether justice will catch up to top honchos of Massey Energy who’re responsible for killing 29 mine workers in a horrific methane explosion deep inside the corporation’s Upper Big Branch mine two years ago.
So far, no – but even the odious former-CEO of Massey, Don Blankenship, must now be having some sleepless nights, for the Justice Department has steadily been climbing up the corporate ladder. Prosecutors have gone from indicting a couple of lower-level Massey managers to now nailing Gary May, who was superintendent of Upper Big Branch when it blew.
The charges against May show a corporate-wide, care-less culture of “profit over safety” and a deliberate policy of deceiving mine safety inspectors. May allegedly directed workers to falsify official safety record books, and he used codes to warn workers that inspectors had arrived, calling out, “Bringing in a load of blocks.” and “There’s a hailstorm outside.” So-warned, workers were expected to act quickly to hide such violations of safety laws as rigging the ventilation system to make the air in the mine seem better than it really was. May is also charged with such deadly practices as ordering the rewiring of a methane monitor to keep miners working, even as levels of explosive methane rose dangerously. (more…)
The Department of Justice must “go up Massey’s chain of command as far as possible” and hold accountable those individuals responsible for the deaths of 29 coals miners at Massey Energy’s Big Branch (W.Va.) mine in 2010, a group of lawmakers urged Attorney General Eric Holder.
In a letter to Holder from Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and 15 other House members, they say that although the recent settlement between the federal government and Alpha minerals—which took over Massey several months after the deadly disaster—includes a non-prosecution agreement with Alpha in exchange for $210 million in investments in mine safety and research, civil penalties and restitution to families,
It does not prevent the Department of Justice from investigating or bringing criminal charges against the individual’s responsible for the April 5, 2010 disaster.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) investigation of the blast found that individuals acting both alone and in concert were responsible for the unsafe mining practices and conditions that led directly to the explosion.
Though these individuals stood at the head of the disaster, they have thus far escaped justice. (more…)
The federal government and the owners of the former Massey Energy Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) coal mine, where 29 miners died in an April 2010 blast that the Mine Workers (UMWA) called “industrial homicide,” have reached the largest-ever settlement in a federal investigation of a coal mine disaster.
The $210 million agreement with Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey Energy for $8.5 billion in February, does not bar any future criminal prosecutions of individuals connected to the deadly explosion.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin told reporters today, “No individuals are off the hook.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says the settlement is a “welcome beginning” step toward justice but:
The only way to make a real down payment on justice is to ensure the guilty serve appropriately stiff jail sentences.
UMWA President Cecil Roberts says responsibility must be placed “where it belongs,”
on upper level management at Massey who created the safety-last culture at that company. We firmly believe the evidence is there for such criminal prosecution. Until someone goes to jail, there will be no justice done here.
The $210 million settlement includes $46.5 million in criminal restitution to the miners’ families, $128 million to fund cutting-edge mine safety upgrades, research and training and $35 million in penalties for federal mine safety violations.
A report to be released later today by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) will show the specific mines safety violations at the Massey mine that contributed to the blast.
All three investigations agree that the explosion involved an ignition of a small amount of methane gas that transitioned into a massive coal-dust explosion because of Massey’s poor safety practices. The ignition likely was sparked by worn-out longwall cutting teeth hitting sandstone. The spark grew out of control because water sprays meant to control it weren’t working, and the blast erupted into a huge explosion when it hit large amounts of coal dust Massey had not cleaned from underground tunnels.
Massey, McAteer wrote in his report, “exhibited a corporate mentality that placed the drive to produce Massey, coal above worker safety.”
Click here for more from the Gazette and here for more from the Associated Press.
It’s illegal in America now to buy or sell a human being, but a recorded telephone conversation between a Republican governor and a guy he thought was a billionaire benefactor shows that it’s still possible to own a politician.
Republicans like Walker, owned by billionaires like Koch, are fulfilling demands from corporate interests that government “free” enterprise by slashing corporate taxes and regulation. Over the past three years, America has suffered the consequences of a government under-funded after tax breaks to the rich and under-performing after years of lax regulation. The result: a growing federal deficit, the Wall Street collapse, the BP oil spill and the deaths of 29 Upper Big Branch miners. Still, Republicans want more government atrophy. That would leave only one restraint on corporate control of the economy, environment and government.
That one restraint is labor unions. A union is workers using their constitutionally-guaranteed freedom to assemble, the right to get together as a group, in this case a labor organization, to negotiate collectively with employers for better wages, benefits and working conditions.
Workers who gathered together in unions over two centuries in this country have succeeded in raising their wages, as well as the wages of non-union workers in competing industries. Union workers secured improved working conditions so fewer were killed on the job. And they achieved creation of the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which protects the safety of all workers. Over the decades, unions played a major role is obtaining legislation barring child labor, standardizing the 40-hour work week, and creating both Social Security and Medicare.
Similarly, studies show union successes enhance the lives of all workers in a state. In anti-union states, the average worker earns $5,333 less a year, the proportion of people without health insurance is 21 percent higher and the rate of workplace death is 51 percent higher. In addition, there’s evidence that union workers improve quality. Currently, after receiving an education from union teachers, Wisconsin youngsters collectively score second highest in the nation on the ACT/SAT college admission tests. By contrast, the five states barring teacher unions rank at the bottom of the pack: South Carolina dead last at 50th; North Carolina, second last at 49th; Georgia third from last at 47th; Texas fourth from last at 47th, and Virginia ever so slightly better at 44th.
Still, Wisconsin Gov. Walker wants to destroy his state’s teachers unions. Two studies determined that public workers, that is those employed by governments such as teachers, firefighters and police officers, earn less than their counterparts in the private sector when both benefits and education are factored into the calculation. It wasn’t union workers, in the public or the private sector, who caused states’ financial crises. That was gambling on Wall Street, which ravaged the economy. Still, Republican governors across the country are demanding that government workers pay.
The government workers in Wisconsin already agreed to accept Walker’s financial demands – that they pay more for their pensions and health care. This negates Walker’s contention that this dispute is about the budget. The governor is demanding more than those financial concessions. He wants the legislature to cripple the unions’ ability to bargain for improvements in the future. In his “budget repair bill,” he would strip government workers of their right to negotiate over working conditions and benefits. They’d be able to discuss wages but could never get an increase above inflation.
This is not about money. It’s about controlling America. Corporations have bought Republicans, who now chant the corporate mantra that government coddles its citizens with the likes of mine and food safety rules.
Corporations are accomplishing their goal of shriveling government to the point of ineffectiveness so “enterprise” is “free” to run rogue. Now with their purchased politicians, corporations are trying to do the same to unions – the only organization other than government that has traditionally effectively defended working Americans.
That’s exactly right. This is a contest between the excesses of “free” enterprise and the constitutionally-protected freedom of assembly. And getting “our freedoms back” means wresting them back from corporations.
Leo W. Gerard also is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama recently appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of the Apollo Alliance, Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute. He is a member of the IMF and ICEM global labor federations and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union.
The April coal mine explosion at the Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) mine that killed 29 miners “was preventable” if the mine had been in compliance with federal safety rules, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials told the families of the victims this week.
MSHA officials briefed the families on its findings in a closed-door meeting, but family members who spoke with reporters later said MSHA coal administrator Kevin Strickland said the blast could have been prevented if a coal cutting machine had been properly maintained and if highly explosive coal dust had been controlled.
On Wednesday, in a briefing with reporters, MSHA detailed what it believes was the cause of the blast. On the day of the blast, a long-wall mining machine was cutting coal about two miles underground in a mine that was known to have high levels of flammable methane gas. (more…)
Blankenship didn’t hit the national stage until one of his coal mines blew up and killed 29 West Virginia miners in April. In the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, Blankenship has sued the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), implied the deadly blast was God’s fault and told the government to keep its hands off patriotic business like Massey. Writes Milbank:
If Don Blankenship had any sense of shame, he’d crawl into a mine and hide.
But Blankenship must have no sense of shame, because he visited the National Press Club last week to complain about “knee-jerk political reactions” to mine deaths and to demand that the Obama administration lighten regulations on his dirty and dangerous company. “We need to let businesses function as businesses,” an indignant Blankenship proclaimed. “Corporate business is what built America, in my opinion, and we need to let it thrive by, in a sense, leaving it alone.” (more…)
Tough new mine safety and workplace safety rules cleared a big hurdle yesterday when the House Education and Labor Committee approved legislation that includes stronger enforcement tools, tougher penalties and broader workers’ rights.
The bill—now named The Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act (H.R. 5663) in honor of the late West Virginia senator who was a champion of mine safety—focuses on mine safety, but also includes provisions to strengthen safety protections in all workplaces. Says committee chairman George Miller (D-Calif.):
Too many families have suffered a tragic loss because of callous mine operators, ineffective protections and outdated laws. It is time to provide effective protections so that every worker can return home safely at the end of their shift.
At last week’s hearing on the bill, Stanley “Goose” Stewart, who was able to escape the April explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) mine that killed 29 other coal miners, told the committee:
Something needs to be done to stop outlaw coal companies who blatantly disregard the laws….This bill must pass to keep coal companies honest or make them pay the price for their unscrupulous behavior. (more…)
Editor’s Note:A writer claiming to be a safety official sent the USW Blog a message this week complaining about the USW’s position on Behavior Based Safety (BBS) programs. Michael J. Wright, director of the USW Health, Safety and Environment Department sent him the response below. It was written on the day Mr. Wright’s department began investigating the explosion at the U.S. Steel Corp. coke plant in Clairton, Pa. that injured 20 workers, three critically. It was the same day that an electrician from Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where a methane explosion killed 29 workers in April, confirmed that he’d been ordered to bypass a methane detector. The USW and United Mine Workers of America are working together to secure more stringent safety standards and enforcement.
Michael J. Wright
By Michael J. Wright
Director, USW Health Safety and Environment
In your message to the USW Blog, you say: “Unless the safety manager is an inexperienced rube, BBS does NOT replace or displace a comprehensive health and safety program…” Sadly, we’ve seen a lot of workplaces where that is exactly what’s happened. I’ve seen programs where a BBS consultant sells their services as “all you need for a safe workplace.” I’ve seen cases where a company spends all its budget of BBS and lays off the plant safety professionals. And in almost every small or medium size company that initiates a BBS program, that program becomes the centerpiece of the whole safety effort. Hazard recognition and control, job safety analysis, and root-cause incident investigation become afterthoughts.
As I’m sure you know, BBS programs are so variable that the term is almost meaningless. Some believe in assigning discipline, some do not; some use incentive programs; some are against them. But they all begin with the premise that by observing and correcting individual worker behavior we can eliminate most accidents. That is certainly not the case with the majority of the accidents our department investigates. Take, for example, some of the most serious accidents in the last five years or so – BP Texas City in 2005 and this year’s Upper Big Branch Mine, Tesoro Anacortes, and the Deepwater Horizon. (Texas City and Tesoro were USW workplaces, where we participated in the investigation.) In no case was the behavior of the individual workers an underlying cause. Rather the causes were poor maintenance, inadequate instrumentation, failure to learn from past near-misses, failure to properly analyze complex systems, cost-cutting and a willingness on the part of management to tolerate an unacceptable level of risk.
You mentioned the DuPont STOP system. At least in the past, STOP training started with the assertion that 90% or more of all accidents are caused by unsafe acts, and the rest by unsafe conditions. That statement doesn’t even rise to the level of being wrong – it’s meaningless. In one sense every accident is caused by unsafe acts – if we include decisions by the CEO or plant manager or engineering consultants. But that’s not what DuPont means – they are focused on unsafe acts by the accident victim or a close co-worker. But all accidents require an unsafe condition, by definition. In many cases a worker also “committed an unsafe act” – which we prefer to call “made a mistake.” Attributing causation to one or the other is like saying that a third of all fires are caused by the presence of fuel, a third by the presence of oxygen, and a third by a source of ignition. (more…)
Department of Labor news releases rarely get the attention they so rightly deserve. But I’m a fan of giving credit where credit is due, so when Assistant Secretary Joseph Main issued this statement, I perked up.
After an investigation by Federal officials, a mine operated by Massey (think Upper Big Branch explosion) was cited for 29 violations in its Tiller No. 1 Mine. The violations ranged from hazardous roof conditions to inadequate ventilation to, wait for it….
Non-permissible electrical equipment with the potential to explode methane gas.
Section 104(d)(1) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act describes a significant and substantial violation as being “of such nature as could significantly and substantially contribute to the cause and effect of a coal or other mine safety or health hazard.” A violation of this provision essentially means there is a reasonable likelihood that the hazard will result in serious injury or illness. The problem is not just the standard, but in the requisite number of violations that meet the standard to establish a pattern.
Judge David Barbour, who issued an oral ruling (written decision to come) on the matter, found that although he believed all 29 violations had occurred, only 19 of the violations amounted to significant and substantial, 6 less than the 25 needed to establish a pattern. Don’t bother asking if that’s a typo, 25 “significant and substantial” violations are necessary in order to establish a pattern. Establishing a pattern means that any significant and substantial violation found within 90 days thereafter automatically triggers a withdrawal order until the mine has a clean inspection with no S&S violations. In short, establishing a pattern would immensely help those who work in such unsafe conditions by forcing mine operators to clean up or face losing money every day.
“No mine has ever been successfully placed into pattern of violations status.” This is perhaps the most profound statement made with regards to the matter. In 2006, the American public endured the Sago Mine explosion and watched as a single miner emerged with his life. And in April of this year the Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 coal miners.
Mining is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and we continually disrespect those who risk their lives for our energy by refusing to recognize and fix a broken system of oversight. Employees of these mines should be disgusted, if they aren’t too busy being frightened. The Federal Mine and Health Safety Act is designed to provide regulations and oversight into one of the most hazardous industries known to man. It was not designed to protect the companies who owned the mines, but the average worker who spent a full 8-10 hours in a black hole.
A message needs to be sent to the mine industry: we will no longer tolerate such blatant disregard for workers. We may not be able to bring mining from one of the most dangerous jobs in the world to the safest job in the world, but surely we can help those facing such conditions. And we can do that by easing the restrictions on establishing patterns of violations. Doing so would allow regulators to shut mines down when they see violations deemed S&S, and force mine operators to think about safety more than once every explosion.
Ravi Bakhru is a third year law student at George Washington University. He’s an intern at Workplace Fairness and has an interest in pursuing employee rights law. You may reach him by e-mail at Ravi.Bakhru@gmail.com.
Portions of this website are paid for by the United Steelworkers Political Action Fund, with voluntary contributions from union members and their families, and is not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee.
USW Political Action Fund - Five Gateway Center - Pittsburgh, PA 15222