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Greed Explains the Disasters and the Lying Afterwards

12:42 pm in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

(This post is by both Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers, and by Cecil Roberts, International President of the United Mine Workers of America)

As oil mucked the Gulf of Mexico and families mourned 11 dead rig workers, BP officials proclaimed that the corporation’s priority always was safety.

This tracked the tack taken by Massey Energy, whose officials also declared safety was paramount after an explosion in the corporation’s Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 workers.

CEOs commonly make such incongruous assertions to protect profits after corporate-caused disasters. They’re driven by the same factor that is fundamental to the catastrophes – greed.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Not in a society that has converted greed from a vice to a virtue. Not in the place that inspired the book, “Greed is Good: The Capitalist Pig Guide to Investing.” Surely it’s no problem in the land where “Greed” has its own game show on Fox and where Ayn Rand, the “money-is-the-root-of-all-good” philosopher, reigns as Republican queen long after her death.

Americans worship God on the Sabbath and the rich every other day. Billionaire Warren Buffett’s word is investment gospel. Americans gave Wall Street banksters hundreds of billions in bailout money — protecting their multi-million dollar bonuses. But in the midst of the Great Recession caused by Wall Street recklessness, America has repeatedly delayed renewal of unemployment benefits and now is terminating federal health insurance support for the furloughed middle class.

Middle class workers are the ones who die in coal mines and on oil rigs.

Afterwards, CEOs say anything to save the bottom line – the one that will determine their bonuses.

Discussing the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, Massey CEO Don Blankenship told stock analysts in a conference call late in April:

“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.”

Though the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued 1,342 safety violation notices to Upper Big Branch over the past five years, Blankenship explained that’s just life in the coal business:

“Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.”

In addition, Blankenship said the titles of two Massey programs proved safety was supreme:

“The naming of those two programs speaks for itself: S1 – safety is job one; P2 – production is job 2. That’s been the case for my entire tenure.”

Still, 29 miners are dead. And dozens died at Massey mines in the past decade. Three died at Upper Big Branch between 1998 and 2010. The Massey dead include two workers who suffocated in a mine run by Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. on Jan. 19, 2006, just three months after Blankenship issued a memo ordering underlings to produce coal to the exclusion of other activities, such as building ventilation systems called overcasts. Aracoma officials pleaded guilty in December, 2008, to removing and failing to replace ventilation devices, the lack of which contributed to the suffocation deaths.

And Massey workers aren’t as sure as Don Blanekship that safety is job one. Several spoke to NPR about it. Teddy Cole, who worked a dozen years at Upper Big Branch, said Blankenship prioritizes production:

“It’s supposed to be safety first, but to me, it was production first.”

Former co-worker Brian Jerral agreed:

“A lot of times, it’s production first and safety third.”

Adam Vance, who worked at two Massey mines, described a culture of greed:

“They cover [themselves] with their safety meetings, but the main thing Massey’s out for is to get that all-mighty dollar. If the coal ain’t running, they ain’t making no money.”

And it’s a lot of money for Massey — $1.02 million a day in 2008.

Massey miner Ricky Lee Campbell 24, of Beckley, W.Va., told reporters about his safety concerns on April 7. Massey suspended him a week later, then fired him. He has filed a federal whistle-blower complaint.

Similar to Massey, BP officials claim safety is job one.

Shortly after BP named Tony Hayward CEO in 2007, he told the Houston Chronicle:

"I think we have the opportunity to set a new benchmark in industrial safety. . .We have to have a work environment where people don’t get injured or killed, period."

That was significant since an explosion two years earlier had killed 15 workers and injured another 170 at BP’s Texas City, Texas oil refinery, and federal regulators blamed the catastrophe in part on cost cuts initiated by Hayward’s predecessor. The following year, BP admitted oil leaks into Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay were caused partly by cost cutting.

Despite Hayward’s safety assertions, another 11 workers are dead. And survivors told CNN that PB routinely cut corners and pushed production despite potential safety problems. They also told CNN co-workers had been fired for raising concerns about dangerous practices that could delay drilling if remedied and that BP had insisted on an unsual process shortcut on the day of the blast.

Immediately after the rig explosion, BP contended its under-Gulf pipe was spewing only 1,000 barrels of oil a day. Fairly quickly, it revised that estimate to 5,000 barrels, but continued to refuse to make public its live video of the oil-churning pipe.

After a freedom of information request and Congressional pressure forced BP to release the video, federal officials estimated as much as 40,000 barrels are being discharged daily.

Still, BP’s Hayward flatly denied the existence of underwater oil plumes, saying:

“The oil is on the surface. There aren’t any plumes.”

And he discounted the effect of the unleashed oil on the environment:

“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

Hayward had a good (greed-based) reason to deny access to the video, discount the amount of oil spewing into the sea and defy the assessment of government and university researchers who confirmed the plumes of dispersed oil stretching for miles beneath the ocean surface. BP will be fined based on the number of barrels of oil its well disgorges into the gulf – somewhere between $1,100 and $4,300 a barrel — depending on whether the government can prove gross negligence.

David Leonhardt, an economics columnist for the New York Times, described BP’s Texas City, Gulf of Mexico and Alaska crises this way:

“Much of this indifference stemmed from an obsession with profits, come what may.”

Greed.

It’s one of the seven deadly sins. When it afflicts corporate CEOs, it’s deadly to workers.

Honest profit is fine. But it’s perverse to celebrate greed, to elevate it over human life.

Safety Awards That Endanger Workers’ Lives

2:02 pm in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

BP, Massey Energy and Tesoro all have hauled out plaques celebrating safety achievements to deflect allegations of corporate recklessness in the aftermath of explosions in April that killed 47 of their workers.

Though each of these corporations accepted awards for safety statistics, not one has taken responsibility for workplace deaths.

The disconnect between safety awards and dead workers has enabled these corporations to characterize the explosions as accidents, random events for which no one really is to blame, certainly not corporate officials who control conditions in workplaces. That’s why these pseudo-safety awards are so destructive.

The prizes congratulate corporations for reducing incidents such as slips and falls that injure workers to the point that they must miss work. Decreasing worker injuries is good, no doubt about it. But preserving workers’ lives is imperative. The corporate awards programs fail to recognize employers who successfully institute more complicated, costly and rigorous procedures called “process safety management” to eliminate workplace catastrophes that kill.

Awards for slip and fall reduction promote complacency. The plaques hanging in hallways say the oil rig or coal mine or refinery is super safe – so secure it’s worthy of commemoration. They create the illusion of protection in workplaces where process safety management hasn’t been properly implemented. The safety plaques are paper shields, easily immolated in explosions, along with the workers they beguiled.

Some BP executives actually experienced a little of that burn on April 20. A group of BP bigwigs was aboard Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico when it exploded. They’d traveled out to the oil rig to celebrate a safety milestone. Workers on the rig had gone seven years without a lost-time accident – well, seven years without reporting one, anyway. Corporations routinely subtly and overtly discourage workers from reporting injuries. For example, companies grant cash awards for designated time periods during which no injury reports are filed and force mishap victims to wear distinctive clothing like orange vests so they get the blame – and not the corporation – for injury reports that cost entire crews their cash awards.

The BP executives escaped Deepwater Horizon with their lives. Eleven roustabouts and roughnecks on that day of safety celebration did not.

Just last year, the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) gave BP and Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, Safety Awards for Excellence –SAFE awards. MMS bestows these on offshore oil and gas corporations for “outstanding safety and pollution prevention performance.” Again this year, BP was a finalist for a SAFE award. After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, MMS postponed announcement of this year’s winners. Last year, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) presented BP Alaska with a three-year re-certification of its Star award, which recognizes safety performance.

All of that would lead workers to believe BP is a safe employer – not like the BP with a refinery in Texas City, Texas that blew up in 2005 killing 15 workers and injuring 170, the BP that OSHA slapped with its second largest total penalty ever — $21 million – for safety violations at Texas City that led to the massive explosion, the BP that OSHA hit with its largest ever fine — $87.4 million – last fall for failure over four years to comply with the terms of its settlement agreement to correct the potential hazards at Texas City.

No, the safety-award-winning BP must be different, a corporation that recognizes its responsibility to establish and conduct safe workplaces.

A study after the BP-Texas City explosion showed that one of the best ways to prevent such catastrophes is meeting the standards of process safety management. These use engineering and management techniques to continuously ensure that machinery and piping are in good condition, meticulously manage and record changes, and properly train workers. The concepts are not exclusive to refineries. They can be used to improve safety in other industrial processes as well.

The refinery industry accepted the process safety standards but hasn’t rigorously implemented them. The United Steelworkers union, which represents oil workers, met with oil corporations and the American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade group for drillers and refiners, in an attempt to write two new standards addressing leading indicators in the refining industry and worker fatigue. But the union abandoned the effort last fall because the industry was more concerned about image than safety.

Then, on April 2, an explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash. killed seven workers. Like BP, Tesoro is a safety award winner – but not for comprehensive process safety management. The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association (NPRA) has granted the Anacortes refinery numerous prizes over the years – “merit” and “achievement” and “gold” — including two last year. Tesoro notes on its web site that this recognition is for reducing “recordable injury rates”– the lost-time injuries that must be reported to OSHA.

NPRA doesn’t sponsor an award for corporations that improve process safety management. It’s trying to collect statistics on process safety from drillers and refiners, but participation is anything but compulsory. NPRA stresses that the information it receives on process safety will be collected on an aggregate level so it’s not specific to individual refineries, will be kept secret and will be used for benchmarking only. Clearly, it is striving to entice reticent refiners to participate.

Three days after the Tesoro tragedy, 29 workers died in an explosion in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Massey CEO Don Blankenship immediately began blaming God and the workers themselves for the catastrophe and citing Massey’s safety awards. In 2009, The National Mining Association and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) gave Massey three “Sentinels of Safety” awards, the most any mining company had ever received in one year. These recognize, as the NPRA and MMS awards do, low levels of lost-time injuries. “At Massey Energy, we embrace our commitment to safety at all levels – from executive to miner. The Sentinels of Safety awards reflect the company’s dedication to safety at all of our facilities,” Blankenship said six months before the worst mining disaster in 40 years killed 29 Massey workers.

After two Massey miners suffocated in 2006, the corporation pleaded guilty and paid $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties – the largest settlement in coal industry history — for willful violation of mandatory safety standards. By a count the United Mine Workers of America conducted, 52 people have been killed on Massey Energy properties in the past decade. UMWA President Cecil Roberts called Massey mines the most dangerous in America.

And yet, Blankenship touts Massey’s safety awards. Like BP and Tesoro.

The standards for these prizes must change to stop deluding workers and deceiving the public. No agency or association should ever again laud workplaces that are lax on meeting process safety management standards.

More Regulation the Solution, Not the Problem

8:10 am in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

The governors of the Gulf Coast states, all Republicans, asked the federal government for help dealing with the BP oil spill — yeah, the government, the very organization that their hero and mentor Ronald Reagan described as “the problem,” not the solution. “The problem” must deal with our oil problem, those Republicans told President Obama.

The President sent the help they requested, but at the same time, Republican mouthpieces like House GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence accused the administration of responding too slowly to the spill. Republicans believe government should be shrunk so small it can be downed in a bathtub, that government should get out of the way and allow private enterprise to work. But, simultaneously, they want government to clean up a catastrophe created by private industry.

Twenty-nine dead coal miners in West Virginia, seven dead workers at an oil refinery in Washington State, and 11 dead on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig followed by an ecological calamity all in the span of a month illustrate in blood the need for more regulation and stiffer enforcement. That is more government, not less. And it is government performing an essential basic role – protecting its citizens and preserving the environment in which they live.

Improving regulation and enforcement may cost money. But then, what is the value of the lives of those 47 workers killed in three workplace explosions in one month? What is the value of the oil-polluted Gulf waters and coastline? What is the value of untold oil-suffocated marine animals?

As the oil slick sloshed closer to the Florida coast, Sunshine State Republican Marco Rubio, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said of the clean-up by BP, which owns the oil-gushing underwater well, “I would prefer BP pay all of it, but ultimately I don’t even know if they have the resources to do that. . . they’re going to have to pay a significant chunk of this.”

Who does Tea-Party-darling Rubio suggest pay the remaining chunk? Taxpayers, of course. He is saying taxpayers should bail out BP, just as they did the too-big-to-fail banks when they got themselves in trouble.

Too many taxpayers bought the Republican mantra that regulation is excessively costly for both business and government. Congress repealed banking regulations, then Wall Street gambling imploded the U.S. economy. Now, after that painful fact, Congress is trying to re-regulate banking.

It is so much cheaper to regulate and enforce than to pay for clean ups. Just like banking, that’s true for industry, which has repeatedly shown it can’t or won’t regulate itself. And clearly the free market fails to regulate business behavior, or Republican Rubio wouldn’t need to propose taxpayers bear costs of a corporate-caused catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP is a perfect example. In March of 2005, an explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas killed 15 workers and injured 170 more. Afterwards, a study showed that one of the best ways to prevent catastrophes such as fires and explosions is a method called “process safety management.” Rather than counting slips and falls, process safety uses engineering and management techniques to constantly ensure that machinery and piping are in good condition, to meticulously record changes on refinery units, to properly train workers and to carefully schedule work to prevent fatigue. It also refers to an Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) standard governing refineries.

OSHA launched a program in June of 2007 to emphasize process safety, and in the first year completed 20 inspections and issued 456 citations to refiners. “We were pretty shocked and dismayed by what we found,” said OSHA enforcement director Richard Fairfax.

These refineries knew about this program. Still they violated the regulations. Then an explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash. killed 7 workers on April 2. Eighteen days later, an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers at a well owned by BP.

There was BP again, five years after the catastrophe at the Texas City refinery. This corporation didn’t regulate itself. The “invisible hand of the market” didn’t do it either.

And let’s get something straight. These were not natural disasters, not earthquakes like in Haiti or hurricanes like Katrina. These are man-made disasters. And just as important, God didn’t have a hand in these catastrophes. Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy which owns the West Virginia mine that exploded, and Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, both suggested the Lord’s wrath was at work. Perry said both the oil rig and coal mine explosions were “an act of God.” That would mean Massey and BP are not responsible. In the corporations-are-good and government-is-bad fantasy world where Blankenship and Perry live, society can’t hold corporations accountable because God is to blame.

Just like these Republicans, the American Petroleum Institute (API), which represents both drillers and refiners, does not believe in regulation. Ron Chittim, API senior policy advisor, told the San Antonio Express-News that no new regulation is necessary because the industry already must obey too many rules.

After the explosion at BP in Texas City, the United Steelworkers union, which represents oil and refinery workers, met with API and the oil industry in an attempt to write new safety guidelines. USW Vice President Gary Beevers abandoned the effort because he felt the industry was more concerned about image than safety.

Now, the USW is pressing Congress for stronger safety regulations and fines high enough to actually affect corporate behavior. As this year of fatal explosions has tragically illustrated, less government is a problem. More regulation is the solution.

Lies, Damned Lies and Employers

7:02 am in Energy by Leo W. Gerard

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.

An Enduring Memorial for Slaughtered Miners: Criminal Liability for Reckless Owners

9:18 am in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

The catastrophe at Upper Big Branch that killed 29 miners evokes the disaster at Westray that killed 26 almost exactly 18 years earlier.

As at Upper Big Branch, a coal dust and methane explosion ripped through the Westray mine in Plymouth, Nova Scotia early in the morning. As at Upper Big Branch, rescuers discovered bodies, but toxic air forced them out before they could account for all missing miners. After five days, dangerous conditions permanently ended the search for the missing 11 at Westray. They’re entombed in the hazardous workplace that took their lives, a mine like Upper Big Branch that had been cited for dust and methane violations.

Nova Scotia erected a memorial over the spot where the bodies of the 11 are believed to be, with plaques bearing the names of the miners killed. West Virginia no doubt will commemorate those killed at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch.

But Canada did something more. It criminalized corporate disregard for worker safety. It’s called the Westray Law.

America needs its own such statute – an Upper Big Branch Law – holding corporate managers and directors criminally accountable for ditching safety for dollars.

Fines and lawsuit settlements have proved ineffective in forcing the likes of Massey to reform. For example, In December of 2008, Massey paid $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties because it had removed ventilation controls in its Aracoma mine, contributing to the deaths of two miners there on Jan. 19, 2006. To put the effect of that punishment in perspective, in that same year Massey paid its CEO, Don Blankenship, a salary more than twice that amount — $11.2 million.

In the 12 months after the $4.2 million admonishment, Massey racked up twice as many violations at Upper Big Branch as it had in 2008. The violations included explosive coal dust and methane build-ups, and they were so serious that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) designated Upper Big Branch in August of 2009 as a mine requiring increased scrutiny by inspectors. But it escaped those extra examinations because it appealed so many of its citations, according to U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California congressman who has worked for years to improve mine safety.

Just three days before the Upper Big Branch catastrophe, an explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash. killed six workers and severely burned a seventh. Like Massey, Tesoro had paid fines that proved ineffective in creating safe working conditions. Last year, Tesoro shelled out $12,500 for violations that included the most serious transgressions — those with the potential to cause serious injury or death.

As it stands in America now, the captains of corporations believe the most important issue from industry is greenbacks. Blankenship made that clear to his managers in an October, 2005 memo commanding that they “run” or produce coal to the exclusion of everything else:

“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. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills.”

Blankenship also despises regulators and regulation, publicly deriding MSHA inspectors, declaring at a Labor Day rally last year:

"I also know Washington and state politicians have no idea how to improve miner safety.The very idea that they care more about coal-miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming."

Similarly, he condemns regulation and environmental activists on his Twitter account, a Bloomberg story noted.

At a July 11, 2008, deposition in a lawsuit over the two deaths at the Aracoma mine, Blankenship responded to accusations that he had a “personal drive for increasing company profits at all costs, including the safety of subsidiaries’ associates.”

Blankenship denied it:

“As an accountant, I know that safety is an important cost control. So even if I were so calloused, which I am not, as to believe that safety should be sacrificed for production, I would understand that it doesn’t make any sense because the accidents and so forth cause you to have more costs.”

It’s about the costs – not about causing heartache, widows and fatherless children.

The same was true at the Westray mine.

Nova Scotia empanelled a commission to investigate the Westray Mine catastrophe, and it issued a report in November, 1997 entitled, The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster. Repeatedly it condemns mine owner, Curragh Resources Inc., for elevating production over safety:

“Indeed, management at Westray displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as wimps in the organization.”

The report says the mine blew up because mangers failed to keep workers safe, even if regulators’ actions were inadequate:

“The fundamental and basic responsibility for the safe operation of an underground coal mine, and indeed of any industrial undertaking, rests clearly with management . . .Westray management, starting with the chief executive officer, was required by law, by good business practice, and by good conscience to design and operate the Westray mine safely. Westray management failed in this primary responsibility, and the significance of that failure cannot be mitigated or diluted simply because others were derelict in their responsibility.”

The commission also wrote that the mine managers defied coal regulations:

“Much has been said throughout this Inquiry about the inadequacy of the Coal Mines Regulation Act. As outdated and archaic as the present act is, it is painfully clear that this disaster would not have occurred if there had been compliance with the act.”

Violations included managers allowing dangerous coal dust and methane to collect:

“There is no question that management was aware that coal-dust accumulations underground at Westray were at hazardous levels. . . There is no question that management knew that the levels of methane underground at Westray were hazardous.”

And the report gets right to the point about why managers defied regulations: It was all about pushing production to increase profit. The report says:

“Management avoided any safety ethic and apparently did so out of concern for production imperatives. . . Methane detection equipment at Westray was illegally foiled in the interests of production.”

Prosecutors criminally charged Westray mine managers, but the case failed. In response, the United Steelworkers, who were certified to represent the Westray miners after the explosion, began pressing for a new law that would make it easier for prosecutors to hold managers criminally accountable for recklessly endangering workers.

It took a decade and several attempts, but in 2003 Parliament passed the Westray bill unanimously. It imposes a duty on corporations to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to workers. Managers found guilty in workplace deaths face unlimited fines and life sentences.

Since the law took effect in 2004 in Canada, thousands of workers have been killed on the job, but prosecutors have used the Westray Act to press charges against managers fewer than a half dozen times. It has hardly been abused.

In an economic climate that prizes profits over life, the law provides a vehicle to punish the reckless and provoke safety by the callous. In Canada, it sets priorities. People first, profits second. It is political enactment of what nineteenth century French inspector general of mines Frederick Le Play said:

“The most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner.”

Just one week after the Upper Big Branch disaster, S&P Equity Research upgraded its evaluation of Massey stock from hold to buy. S&P explained:

“We believe that the financial impact of the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy to Massey Energy will be immaterial.”

The deaths of 29 miners will be “immaterial” to Massey’s bottom line. America needs an Upper Big Branch Law to make the lives of all workers matter to their employers.

Wrongful Fatalities, Failed Worker Protections

6:25 am in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

In both cases – the five fatalities in a Washington oil refinery April 2 and the 29 deaths in a West Virginia coal mine the following Monday – news reports described the explosions that killed workers as industrial “accidents.”

When an explosion occurs at a refinery or mine that has been repeatedly fined for heath and safety violations, one question that ought to be asked is just how unexpected was the event.

Answering this question is essential because: less time plus less money spent on safety measures equals more profit for owners. America must introduce new factors into that computation to protect the lives and limbs of workers who produce the energy on which this country depends. One factor is larger safety violation penalties – fines and shutdowns costly enough to outstrip profitability. And when corporations consider fines just another cost of doing business, another crucial factor is the ability to charge CEOs with criminal negligence when their corporations flagrantly violate safety regulations – an ability that other countries have written into law.

As it stands now, corporations have discovered that they can continue profiting even after unconscionable disasters. Take BP for example. In 2005, a massive blast at the BP Texas City refinery killed 15 and injured 180. Business Week noted that BP continued to turn a profit every year after the Texas catastrophe, even though it paid more than $2 billion for legal costs and fines and for remediation programs at its U.S. refineries.

Regulatory agencies have repeatedly cited and fined both Tesoro, which operates the Anacortes, Wash. refinery where an explosion killed five workers and severely burned two last week, and Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., where 29 miners are dead.

Since 2005, regulators cited Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine 1,342 times for safety infractions and charged Massey $1.89 million in fines, $1.3 million of which Massey is contesting. Of the violations, 86 were for failing to obey a ventilation plan to control explosive methane gas and coal dust. These are the very factors suspected in Monday’s deadly blast. Regulators issued 12 of those citations in the past month, and miners told the New York Times that dangerous gas accumulation forced evacuations of the mine several times in recent weeks. Regulators found two violations on Monday, before the explosion.

In January, agencies imposed the largest fines in the mine’s history for two violations, including one case in which a mine foreman admitted he’d known of a ventilation problem for three weeks. In 2008, Massey paid what federal prosecutors said was the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry — $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties — after a subsidiary pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations for a January, 2006 fire that killed two workers in Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. In addition those deaths at a Massey mine and the 29 killed Monday at Upper Big Branch, three other miners died at the Upper Big Branch mine since 1998.

The Charleston Gazette reported:

“In seven of the last 10 years, the mine has recorded a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations, according to MSHA statistics.”

Serious safety concerns prompted federal investigators to temporarily halt work in portions of the Upper Big Branch mine more than 60 times since the start of 2009, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported after reviewing U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records.

Safety was such a crisis at the Upper Big Branch mine that MSHA sent Massey a letter on Dec. 6, 2007 warning that its serious violations over the previous two years were so far above average that the mine could be designated as a pattern violator and subjected to stricter federal oversight, the New York Times reported. The letter noted that in 2006 and 2007 MSHA had found nearly twice the national average of serious violations at the mine. Within three months, the mine reduced the number by a third, escaping the extra scrutiny. Still, the total remained above the national average.

The citations and fines do not seem to faze Massey CEO Don Blankenship. He told a radio station:

“Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.”

He also previously told Forbes:

“We don’t pay much attention to the violation count.”

Despite the deaths, all of the violations and the fines, the Massey Energy web site defends the company safety record, contending that 2009 was the 17th year out of 20 that the company scored above the industry average for safety — this assertion although the number of safety violations in 2009 doubled from the previous year, totaled 458 and included 50 citations for breaches Massey, the nation’s fourth largest coal company, knew existed but failed to correct.

Just like Massey, Tesoro claims that its safety record has improved – despite citations and fines and five deaths. In the company fact sheet, Tesoro said its recordable injury rates have declined by 30 percent over three years.

The Washington state Department of Labor and Industry fined Tesoro $85,700 a year ago for 17 serious health and safety violations. These are violations with the potential to cause serious injury or death. In addition, the department found 150 safety deficiencies at the Anacortes, Wash., refinery. Tesoro appealed and got all but three of the most serious violations thrown out and the fine reduced to $12,500. The settlement required Tesoro to hire a safety consultant to examine the refinery. That consultant began work at the plant last month.

Immediately after the five refinery workers died, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association jumped to defend refining safety. Before funerals were held and with two workers still hospitalized with life-threatening burns, the Petroleum Institute complained that the industry wasn’t getting credit for health and safety improvements. And the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association contended that the industry has lower injury rates than manufacturing generally.

The problem with their numbers is that they mingle deaths with OSHA counts of slips and falls – taking the focus off incidents like the fire ball that killed the five Tesoro workers, or the blast that killed 15 at Texas City, or the explosion at another refinery in Anacortes in 1998 that killed six workers.

Also, they don’t want to count injuries to or deaths of subcontractors who refineries often hire to perform dangerous maintenance work. At Tesoro, a contractor was crushed to death in 2002 and three contract workers were hospitalized in 2006 for exposure to naphtha.

In addition, the OSHA numbers used by the refining industry associations exclude explosions and fires at refineries that had the potential to maim and kill both workers and community members but, instead, miraculously resulted only in “close calls.”

OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels contradicted the refining industry association safety assertions, saying: “The petroleum industry has a long way to go before we can feel comfortable that workers there are adequately protected.”

Similarly, Daniel Horowitz, a Chemical Safety Board spokesman, told the Seattle Times, a disproportionate number of incidents occurred at the 150 refineries in the U.S., compared with infractions at tens of thousands of chemical plants handling other hazardous materials. Of the 18 cases the Chemical Safety Board is investigating, seven involve oil refineries.

Republicans and Tea Partiers are running around like Chicken Little screaming that government is too big. Thirty workers killed in explosions in four days is what happens when government is too small, when right-wing strategists like Grover Norquist have gotten their way and shrunk regulatory agencies to a size where they can be drowned in a bathtub.

Like the Wall Street CEOs who recklessly speculated with America’s economy for their personal profit, industrial CEOs have carelessly gambled with worker’s lives for personal gain. The “free market” doesn’t control that immoral behavior. Government must do it. And when it does, it must have the power to impose fines or workplace shut downs that will damage the bottom lines of CEOs who care about nothing else. And it must have the power to criminally charge and potentially imprison CEOs, treating them the same as drunk drivers who risk other peoples’ lives.

In 1946, a group of miners from Illinois wrote their governor seeking his help in enforcing regulations against dangerous coal dust accumulation in a Centralia Coal Co. mine. They wrote:

"In fact, Governor Green, this is a plea to you, to please save our lives.”

The Centralia Coal Co., despite being cited for violations, didn’t acknowledge a problem. On March 25, 1947, a coal dust explosion killed 111 Centralia miners, including three of the four who sent the letter.

Woody Guthrie wrote the song, “The Dying Miner” after the Centralia explosion, including these lyrics:

"I can hear the moans and groans,
More than a hundred good men.
Just work and fight and try to see,
That this never happens again."

More than a half century later, the protections and enforcement for miners, steelworkers, refinery workers, paper workers and others remain inadequate. The proof is that the explosions and deaths continue to occur over and over again.

The slaughter must stop now. Workers go to jobs to earn their daily bread. They don’t go to die.

Wrongful Fatalities, Failed Worker Protections

6:00 pm in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

In both cases – the five fatalities in a Washington oil refinery last Friday and the 25 deaths (and four still missing as of writing) in a West Virginia coal mine the following Monday – news reports described the explosions that killed workers as industrial “accidents.”

When an explosion occurs at a refinery or mine that has been repeatedly fined for heath and safety violations, one question that ought to be asked is just how unexpected was the event.

Answering this question is essential because: less time plus less money spent on safety measures equals more profit for owners. America must introduce new factors into that computation to protect the lives and limbs of workers who produce the energy on which this country depends. One factor is larger safety violation penalties – fines and shutdowns costly enough to outstrip profitability. And when corporations consider fines just another cost of doing business, another crucial factor is the ability to charge CEOs with criminal negligence when their corporations flagrantly violate safety regulations – an ability that other countries have written into law.

As it stands now, corporations have discovered that they can continue profiting even after unconscionable disasters. Take BP for example. In 2005, a massive blast at the BP Texas City refinery killed 15 and injured 180. Business Week noted that BP continued to turn a profit every year after the Texas catastrophe, even though it paid more than $2 billion for legal costs and fines and for remediation programs at its U.S. refineries.

Regulatory agencies have repeatedly cited and fined both Tesoro, which operates the Anacortes, Wash. refinery where an explosion killed five workers and severely burned two last week, and Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., where 25 miners are dead and four missing.

Since 2005, regulators cited Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine 1,342 times for safety infractions and charged Massey $1.89 million in fines, $1.3 million of which Massey is contesting. Of the violations, 86 were for failing to obey a ventilation plan to control explosive methane gas and coal dust. These are the very factors suspected in Monday’s deadly blast. Regulators issued 12 of those citations in the past month, and miners told the New York Times that dangerous gas accumulation forced evacuations of the mine several times in recent weeks. Regulators found two violations on Monday, before the explosion.

In January, agencies imposed the largest fines in the mine’s history for two violations, including one case in which a mine foreman admitted he’d known of a ventilation problem for three weeks. In 2008, Massey paid what federal prosecutors said was the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry — $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties — after a subsidiary pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations for a January, 2006 fire that killed two workers in Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. In addition those deaths at a Massey mine and the 25 killed Monday at Upper Big Branch, three other miners died at the Upper Big Branch mine since 1998.

The Charleston Gazette reported:

“In seven of the last 10 years, the mine has recorded a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations, according to MSHA statistics.”

Serious safety concerns prompted federal investigators to temporarily halt work in portions of the Upper Big Branch mine more than 60 times since the start of 2009, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported after reviewing U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records.

Safety was such a crisis at the Upper Big Branch mine that MSHA sent Massey a letter on Dec. 6, 2007 warning that its serious violations over the previous two years were so far above average that the mine could be designated as a pattern violator and subjected to stricter federal oversight, the New York Times reported. The letter noted that in 2006 and 2007 MSHA had found nearly twice the national average of serious violations at the mine. Within three months, the mine reduced the number by a third, escaping the extra scrutiny. Still, the total remained above the national average.

The citations and fines do not seem to faze Massey CEO Don Blankenship. He told a radio station:

“Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.”

He also previously told Forbes:

“We don’t pay much attention to the violation count.”

Despite the deaths, all of the violations and the fines, the Massey Energy web site defends the company safety record, contending that 2009 was the 17th year out of 20 that the company scored above the industry average for safety — this assertion although the number of safety violations in 2009 doubled from the previous year, totaled 458 and included 50 citations for breaches Massey, the nation’s fourth largest coal company, knew existed but failed to correct.

Just like Massey, Tesoro claims that its safety record has improved – despite citations and fines and five deaths Friday. In the company fact sheet, Tesoro said its recordable injury rates have declined by 30 percent over three years.

The Washington state Department of Labor and Industry fined Tesoro $85,700 a year ago for 17 serious health and safety violations. These are violations with the potential to cause serious injury or death. In addition, the department found 150 safety deficiencies at the Anacortes, Wash., refinery. Tesoro appealed and got all but three of the most serious violations thrown out and the fine reduced to $12,500. The settlement required Tesoro to hire a safety consultant to examine the refinery. That consultant began work at the plant last month.

Immediately after the five refinery workers died, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association jumped to defend refining safety. Before funerals were held and with two workers still hospitalized with life-threatening burns, the Petroleum Institute complained that the industry wasn’t getting credit for health and safety improvements. And the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association contended that the industry has lower injury rates than manufacturing generally.

The problem with their numbers is that they mingle deaths with OSHA counts of slips and falls – taking the focus off incidents like the fire ball that killed the five Tesoro workers, or the blast that killed 15 at Texas City, or the explosion at another refinery in Anacortes in 1998 that killed six workers.

Also, they don’t want to count injuries to or deaths of subcontractors who refineries often hire to perform dangerous maintenance work. At Tesoro, a contractor was crushed to death in 2002 and three contract workers were hospitalized in 2006 for exposure to naphtha.

In addition, the OSHA numbers used by the refining industry associations exclude explosions and fires at refineries that had the potential to maim and kill both workers and community members but, instead, miraculously resulted only in “close calls.”

OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels contradicted the refining industry association safety assertions, saying: “The petroleum industry has a long way to go before we can feel comfortable that workers there are adequately protected.”

Similarly, Daniel Horowitz, a Chemical Safety Board spokesman, told the Seattle Times, a disproportionate number of incidents occurred at the 150 refineries in the U.S., compared with infractions at tens of thousands of chemical plants handling other hazardous materials. Of the 18 cases the Chemical Safety Board is investigating, seven involve oil refineries.

Republicans and Tea Partiers are running around like Chicken Little screaming that government is too big. Thirty workers killed in explosions in four days is what happens when government is too small, when right-wing strategists like Grover Norquist have gotten their way and shrunk regulatory agencies to a size where they can be drowned in a bathtub.

Like the Wall Street CEOs who recklessly speculated with America’s economy for their personal profit, industrial CEOs have carelessly gambled with worker’s lives for personal gain. The “free market” doesn’t control that immoral behavior. Government must do it. And when it does, it must have the power to impose fines or workplace shut downs that will damage the bottom lines of CEOs who care about nothing else. And it must have the power to criminally charge and potentially imprison CEOs, treating them the same as drunk drivers who risk other peoples’ lives.

In 1946, a group of miners from Illinois wrote their governor seeking his help in enforcing regulations against dangerous coal dust accumulation in a Centralia Coal Co. mine. They wrote:

"In fact, Governor Green, this is a plea to you, to please save our lives.”

The Centralia Coal Co., despite being cited for violations, didn’t acknowledge a problem. On March 25, 1947, a coal dust explosion killed 111 Centralia miners, including three of the four who sent the letter.

Woody Guthrie wrote the song, “The Dying Miner” after the Centralia explosion, including these lyrics:

"I can hear the moans and groans,
More than a hundred good men.
Just work and fight and try to see,
That this never happens again."

More than a half century later, the protections and enforcement for miners, steelworkers, refinery workers, paper workers and others remain inadequate. The proof is that the explosions and deaths continue to occur over and over again.

The slaughter must stop now. Workers go to jobs to earn their daily bread. They don’t go to die.