One would think that after a devastating explosion that cost the lives of 29 miners, coal giant Massey Energy would try and tighten up its safety profile. One would be wrong.
A surprise inspection to the Seng Creek Powellton Mine in Boone County, West Virginia, revealed multiple violations resulting in 11 closure orders and a citation. Miners were apparently making illegal "deep cuts" into the coal seem, which allows for higher production. Because the practice can produce more dangerous coal dust underground, approval from the Mine Safety and Health Administration is required. Mine operators also failed to use proper ventilation equipment and skipped over required tests for gases that could cause explosions.
In a press release, Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, noted that we are only six months removed from the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine. "Rather than learn from this tragedy, there are mine operators that continue the 'catch me if you can' tactics, ignoring basic mining laws, and placing their workers at great risk of injury, illness and mine explosions. They know that MSHA cannot be at the mines all the time, and miners pay the ultimate price."
The main problem here is that this is a relatively simple cost-benefit equation for unscrupulous companies like Massey. Read to the end of that press release from the Mine Safety and Health Administration and you'll see what happened next: "The 11 orders and one citation issued last week ultimately were abated through additional training and installation of ventilation controls and roof supports."
So, to recap: skip readings for explosive gases, fail to use ventilation equipment, and make profitable but dangerous deep cuts into the seam... and you'll be closed down for a week or so until you pretend you won't ever do it again. The punishment isn't enough to stop the practices from happening in the first place.
As evidence, one might only examine Massey's safety record. For this mine alone, the MSHA has issued 264 citations, orders and safeguards since January of 2009. In 2009, Massey CEO Don Blankenship said that various mine safety rules were "non-sensical." They care so thoroughly about the bottom line that they even told workers that they couldn't have time off to attend the funerals of the victims of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion.
So what do we do with a company so callously indifferent to the safety of its workers? We give it safety awards!
A crackdown from the MSHA is progress, but until there is a true deterrent in place, companies like this will continue to skirt the rules in the interest of profits.