Occupational Health News Roundup

Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine was, as an independent investigation team documented in the report released last month, a dangerous place to work. In the immediate aftermath of the massive explosion on April 5, 2010, which killed 29 miners, it was also a dangerous place for rescue operations. A scathing editorial in the Charleston Gazette highlights disturbing statements in testimony from mine rescuers. These teams are highly trained in a range of skills, including assessing whether conditions make it advisable to enter mines where disasters have just occurred. Yet, as the Gazette editorial notes, the judgment of mine rescuers at Upper Big Branch was overruled:

Although they judged early on that no miners could have reached a refuge chamber deeper in the mine, they were sent to inspect the chamber anyway. Also, they were sent without adequate back-up teams.

“They could’ve killed every one of us,” said Jerry Cook in testimony to federal investigators. “At that time, we were expendable that night, that’s my opinion. They didn’t care what they did with us.”

The testimony of Cook and other rescuers reveals disturbing attitudes among officials of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration — professionals employed by taxpayers to prevent mine disasters before they happen and to respond to them afterward.

… MSHA rescuers disagreed with Massey Energy officials about how to proceed in early hours after the blast. Robert Hardman, the MSHA boss on the scene, overruled his rescuers suggestions in favor of a plan pushed by a Massey executive.

… Why did government agencies let a tainted firm with hundreds of safety violations decide crucial matters?

Read the whole editorial here, and all of the Charleston Gazette’s articles on the Upper Big Branch Disaster here.


WRAL (North Carolina): Road workers Jesus Martinez Benitez, 32, and Luis Castandeda Gomez, 34, died inside a manhole from suffocation. The men were working for Triangle Paving and Grading, which was fined $40,000 last year for serious and willful workplace safety violations.

Yale Environment 360: South Korean worker groups are raising alarms about a high incidence of leukemia, brain cancer, and other severe illness among workers in Samsung electronics plants. (This article is by Elizabeth Grossman, who also writes for The Pump Handle.)

New York Times: Researchers conducted highly sensitive MRIs on 63 servicemembers who had been diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury after being wounded by explosions in Afghanistan and Iraq; the scans turned up evidence of brain injuries too subtle to be detected with standard CT and MRI scans.

Washington Examiner (DC): The contractor running MetroAccess, the transportation service for disabled passengers in the DC area, has removed seats from some vehicles and is increasing driver shifts to 13 hours (12 hours of driving time). Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764 is raising concerns about driver fatigue — and claiming the seat removal, which the contractor says is to accommodate larger wheelchairs, is an attempt to skirt federal regulations that cap driving time at 10 hours for commercial vehicles that can carry eight or more paying riders.

Associated Press: After a nurse at Francisco Moscoso Puello Hospital in the Dominican Republic’s capital contracted cholera, doctors and nurses went on strike to demand better sanitary conditions. A representative of the medical workers’ union said the hospital “often lacks water, medication and a system to safely dispose of waste.”