Safety Awards Gone Bad

Pork plant in illness probe wins worker safety award

Safety award to Massey mine where two miners were killed  

First, I thought these were bad April Fools’ jokes or maybe an article from the ONION.  But no, these headlines are no joke.  A pork packing house in Austin, MN, a worksite where at least 12 workers have developed an autoimmune disorder, is receiving the Award of Honor from the American Meat Institute for its worker safety and health program.  (This is the plant with the “blowing brains” table,” where workers used compressed air on pig skulls to harvest the brains, resulting in aerosolized brain matter which caused them to develop severe neurological symptoms.)  

Worse yet, is the recognition to Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma mine, where Mr. Don Bragg, 33 and Mr. Ellery Hatfield, 46, died in January 19, 2006 in an underground mine fire; Massey announced it’s receiving a safety award from MSHA.  Just one year ago, this very same MSHA, issued a record-setting $1.5 million penalty against Massey for its “reckless disregard for safety” in the disaster which killed Bragg and Hatfield.  


Industry associations can come up with any kind of award they want and it’s up to us to decide whether these self-promotion efforts are influential or meaningless.  The long list of awardees from this year’s American Meat Institute annual meeting includes five plants in the Smithfield Company (although not the one in Tar Heel, NC ) and numerous Cargill, Sara Lee and Tyson facilities.  Our friends at OSHA Undergound  or others, may have their own opinions or first-hand experience with the conditions in these plants and whether they deserve recognition for their safety and health performance.

As for the safety award for Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma mine, I’m speechless. 

Massey’s news release indicates that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) “has selected” the Aracoma Alma mine “to receive the Pacesetter Award for outstanding safety achievements. …The awards honor operations with exceptionally low lost-time accident rates.”

This mine federal inspection history tells a different story.  Between January 1, 2006 and April 1, 2008 (recall the Aracoma Alma disaster occurred on January 19, 2006), this mine has been cited for nearly 1,200 violations of MSHA health and safety standards, with 665 of them designated “serious and substantial.”  Moreover, this Massey operation has been assessed more than $2,226,000 in monetary penalties, and they’ve only paid $35,651.  The vast majority of the violations are being contested, including the dozens of penalties associated with the Aracoma Alma disaster which are classified as “reckless disregard” for miners’ safety

So, how is it that MSHA has decided that this firm deserves a safety award?

An inquiry made by the Associated Press resulted in this response from MSHA spokesman Matthew Faraci:

“The award, which was given by MSHA’s southern West Virginia district office,* is based solely on the number of hours worked and the number of injury accidents.  Aracoma had zero lost work time with the most hours worked, compared to operations of similar size that also were considered for the award.”

Oh really?  And were those zero lost-time work injuries cross-checked against workers’ compensation records for Massey employees, or claims to company’s health insurance carrier?

I’m not buying it, and the time has come and gone for us to base “safety awards” exclusively on companies’ reports (excuse me, lack of reports) of work-related injuries. 

The Massey Energy company is responsible for the death in 2006 of Mr. Bragg, 33 and Mr. Hatfield, 46, because, among other things:

  • Firehose couplings were not compatible with fire valve outlets and there was no water in the line, making it next to impossible to fight the fire.
  • There was no carbon monoxide (CO) alarm unit in the area where 12 miners were working on the day of the fire.
  • Personnel doors along the escapeways were not clearly marked.
  • There was no fire suppression system installed on the longwall mining unit where the fire originated.
  • Mine maps located on the surface and underground were not accurate, making rescue of the lost miners nearly hopeless.
  • Etc., etc., etc.

This company does NOT deserve a safety award WHILE it is STILL fighting the violations associated with those DEATHS.  Period, end of story.

Moreover, the MSHA district office in Mt. Hope, WV shouldn’t be spending time on “extras” (like awarding safety plaques) when it has a notorious record of-late for FAILING to complete  its quarterly inspections at the underground coal mines in the region.  Until MSHA demonstrates it is fulfilling its STATUTORY responsibilities, it should leave the back-slapping and high-fiving with mine operators to somebody else. 

If proponents of these awards insist they continue, what about a moratorium on receiving an award for any company with a fatality or permanently-disabling injury case in the last 5 years? 

What about also requiring proposed recipients to open up their workers’ compensation records and health insurance records to verify the accuracy of their worksite injury reports?

What about requiring proposed recipients to provide information about all contractor-employees who provided services at the mine site during the time period of interest?

Finally, I’m struck by the statement of Massey Energy CEO, Donald Blankenship in the company’s announcement about the MSHA award:

“Safety is our top priority at Massey, and we are pleased that MSHA has again recognized our members’ unwavering commitment to working safely everyday. Our Aracoma members had a very difficult year after the tragedy in 2006, but they responded by pulling together to create a culture of safety.”

It’s hard for me to believe in his “culture of safety” when in the last six months alone, the Aracoma Alma mine has been cited more than 225 times for safety and health violations, including about 100 of the most serious type.  If Mr. Blankenship insists otherwise, than it is truly AMAZING how Massey turned things around and made the Aracoma Alma “safe,” in lightning speed.  It tells me that all the belly aching I’ve heard over the years from mine operators about the burden of safety improvements is just a bunch of BS.  

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*Note:  I contacted a former colleague in the agency who confirmed that the so-called “Pacesetters Award” is NOT part of MSHA and the National Mining Association’s “Sentinels of Safety” award.  The Sentinels of Safety award program began in 1925.  It’s had its own troubles, which I’ll cover in a near future post.

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Celeste Monforton, MPH worked at the US Dept of Labor from 1991-2001, including at MSHA as a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary.  She is completing her doctorate in public health at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  Her doctoral research includes analyzing injury data for surface quarries, sand & gravel and other mining operations effected by MSHA’s Part 46 training regulation which took effect in October 2000.

 

Comments

  1. #1 Rory O'Neill
    April 22, 2008

    … and if and when cases get to court, these safety awards become part of their armoury of spurious defences, so they get off or get a reduced penalty.

    Of course, in some instances in some countries, there’s even money changes hands before prestigious awards are handed out.

    They’ve even made a science of it all, behavioural safety.

    http://www.hazards.org/bs

  2. #2 Steven Hecker
    April 25, 2008

    Good story. I’ve been struck over the years by a related pattern. Companies are finally hit with substantial citations and fines for fatalities, multiple amputations, etc. and the first thing they want to do is go for VPP (Voluntary Protection Plan) status, i.e. they’re caught with a terrible safety program of many years making but they instantly want to show they’re ready to join the leading edge. As Rory notes there’s almost always a behavioral safety program along the way. Occasionally the dead bodies actually do wake up enough people that they get serious about the kind of change really needed, but more commonly it’s 90% generated out of the PR office. Nothing like an award from peers or, better yet, a “regulatory” agency to help them with their effort.