Massey Energy, a major US coal mine operator, is boasting that its safety program has won the “highly coveted” Golden Pyramid Award. Isn’t it a bit peculiar that a mining company where three workers were killed in 2006 would be recognized for its workplace safety and health program? And, we wonder what kind of organization would give Massey this distinction?
You may recall that Massey’s Aracoma Alma mine was the site of the January 19, 2006 mine fire where coal miners Don Bragg, 33, and Ellery “Elvis” Hatfield, 47, perished underground. Investigations by the State of West Virginia  and Davitt McAteer’s team  identified a slew of safety problems at the worksite including lack of water and fire extinguishers to fight the blaze, inaccurate mine maps which hampered the rescue, and insufficient attention by management on overall mine fire prevention.
Then, two weeks later, Massey’s Black Castle surface mine was the site of another workplace fatality. Mr. Paul Moss, 58, a bulldozer operator with 15 years of experience, was fatally injured after his dozer hit a natural gas line and exploded into flames. MSHA’s investigation said the accident
“occurred because mine management directed the bulldozer to work in close proximity to a known but unlocated active gas line…[and they failed] to locate and mark the gas line…” for the dozer operator.
Last year (2006), was not just an anomaly; employees and contractors working at Massey sites have been victims of workplace fatalities and serious injuries in years past. As the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward wrote:
“Over the last five years, at least 11 coal miners have died on the job in mines operated by subsidiaries of Massey Energy Company… [and] in each case, federal mine safety regulators have cited Massey with violations inspectors said played a role in the accident.”
Moreover, the company was responsible for one of the U.S.’s largest environmental disasters, when a 72-acre coal tailings impoundment of Massey subsidiary Martin County Coal Corporation ruptured in October 2000, releasing 250 million gallons of slurry in the Big Sandy River and its tributaries.
With such a record, who decided Massey deserves an award for its safety program? ….Drum roll, please…. Who? Well, the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), that’s who.
PPAI represents manufacturers, suppliers and pushers of freebies and trinkets, like chip clips embossed with company slogans, highlighters adorned with advertising mottos, and polo shirts with corporate logos. This $18 billion industry has found a small niche market assisting firms, like Massey Energy, with their incentive-based behavior safety program. As Massey’s news release notes, employees are awarded points individually and as members of a team for “working the month without a lost-time accident or a disqualifying absence” and the points can be “redeemed from a prize catalogue.” 
Massey’s partner in the program, Artistic Promotions of Dunbar, WV, assisted the coal company to “develop an incentive program that would motivate its work force” to practice safer work habits.” The firms reported that as a result of the program, loss time accidents were reduced by 47% over the previous year, saying it was the safety year in company history.
Incentive games like “safety bingo” (see Jordan Barab’s take on this at Confined Space) or in Massey’s case their football-themed “Raymond Safety Bowl” (named after a retired president of the aforementioned Martin County Coal) often focus on workers’ behavior rather than on hazardous conditions or the work organization that may be the root of the problem. As Nancy Lessin explored in an article “Behavioural Safety Schemes” for Hazards magazine:
Why did a worker not wear safety glasses? Why did a worker not follow procedures? Workers may not wear safety glasses because their employer buys cheap glasses that scratch easily, and it’s very difficult to see out of them; or, they may be working on a process where the glasses fog up and in order to see their work, they need to remove the glasses. Perhaps engineering controls could enclose the operation in a way that eliminated the need for workers to have to wear safety glasses in the first place. Blaming workers for not wearing safety glasses allows employers to never have to explore or deal with these issues.
In Massey’s case, because of the serious deficiencies found at the Aracoma Alma mine, we wonder whether they are truly “the leader in the industry,” as their “incentive professional” claims, or is it simply a matter of fewer injuries and illnesses being reported by Massey workers? If your team is counting on you to help them get points toward new camping gear or a tool chest, are you going to be the guy who reports your sprained back to the foreman? Do these programs actually create safer workplaces, or instead, institutionalize a reward system for failing to report injuries?
Because the “highly coveted” Golden Pyramid prize was awarded by the PPAI, we wonder how much the decision was based on Massey’s enthusiastic use of promotional products. The coal operator won a similar prize last year from the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA). In any case, Massey seems to have received the award in spite of its poor record and past history. The irony would be humorous if there weren’t so many lives at stakes.
 More here from the incentive-products experts on Massey’s safety program.