Posted on: January 26, 2012 Posted by: Comments: 0

Of the 29 USA Massey Energy Montcoal Upper Big Branch coal miners who died in the gas explosion disaster in West Virginia, 17 had pneumoconiosis, and the mine was known to break ventilation laws.

Pneumoconiosis is an advanced stage of anthracosis, or black lung disease, from long term or high level exposure to coal dust. Yet dust and ventilation conditions on the mine was known by the state to exceed legal limits.

MineSafety.Com reported that an independent review panel, appointed by USA senator Joe Manchin as governor of West Virginia, found that 17 of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion almost two years ago, had pneumoconiosis, according to official autopsy reports.

Jason Atkins, a roof bolter in the UBB mine with five years of mining experience, was one of the miners diagnosed with the disease. He was only 25 years old.

Four of the other deceased miners were diagnosed by the medical examiner as having anthracosis, an early stage of pneumoconiosis. Five of these miners did not have sufficient lung tissue recovered to make a pneumoconiosis determination. Only three miners did not have black lung disease.

The USA limit allowable for quartz exposure in a respirable dust sample is 5%. The air that miners breath may contain 5% quartz dust, a known trigger of silicosis. Of 22 samples from UBB mine in the year before the disaster, posted on a USA state database, only four samples complied with the quartz dusts standard.

Eighteen of the samples had quartz levels as high as 28.3%, five times the allowable limit.

Employer alleges ‘conspiracy’

Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, chairman of the Board for Massey Energy and a former deputy director of the CIA, claimed a conspiracy by the Obama Administration to destroy Massey Energy, citing the large number of violations against the company as proof.

There is no conspiracy, 71% of the deceased UBB miners had black lung disease, and the mine did not comply with ventilation standards. Those men were going to die from work, one way or another.

Occupational health problem

What has happened to the H in OHS? Often occupational health takes a third or fourth place to other matters. Sadly, when we see (or often don’t see) the end result of poor corporate health decisions occurring for years, it seems many take the view “not to worry”.

This ‘not now’ attitude appears to be quite common within the workplace. Fortunately it is rarely seen to the extent as has been the case at Montcoal. Then again, if it had not been for the deaths of these 29 workers we still would not have seen, would we?

Some employers commit ‘depraved indifference’

This operation knowingly placed employees in a toxic workplace, as a matter of course. Those Montcoal Miners died in the USA jurisdiction, where the law describes ‘Depraved Indifference’ as “conduct… so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so lacking in regard for the life or lives of others, and so blameworthy as to warrant the same criminal liability as that which the law imposes upon a person who intentionally causes a crime. Depraved indifference focuses on the risk created by the defendant’s conduct, not the injuries actually resulting…”

Silicosis exposure degrees

The 29 Montcoal miners are screaming from the Grave. I see Depraved Indifference in many workplaces.

I might be able to understand that there might be times where the respirable quartz may climb somewhat higher than allowed, but nearly 600% higher than the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) surely has to be criminal? Where was this data obtained? From a USA regulatory authority.

What is the point of collecting occupational hygiene data (as a Regulator), if you are just going to ignore that data when it clearly exceeds the margins of error regularly.

 In my view, you then become vicariously liable for the occupational health outcome. In other words, the Regulator should also be held partially liable for any respiratory disease occurring within this site.

Now of course we have to point the finger (or maybe the fist) at Massey Energy – they consistently show themselves to have been a murderous and criminal organisation within West Virginia. Yet I continue to have to point the other finger at the regulatory bodies who failed to do their job!

Had the operation not exploded, over 80% of the employees would have confronted a very sorrowful and painful death within their forseeable future. These guys did not even know that they had been deliberately poisoned by their employer.

This is Depraved Indifference if ever it existed. We shall have to see whether the “system” deals with this appropriately. Whatever happened to “the Captain going down with the ship”? In this case, these culpable individuals shall always have fared better than the 29 guys who are now dead.

Test living miners for lung disease

It is likely that eighty percent plus (80%+) of the living Upper Big Branch miners either have Black Lung disease, or certainly they have the preconditions leading to it. Now if I had said these figures came from an underground mine in north western China most of us would say “that’s terrible”, and then think such is the case in the world’s most dangerous mining operations.

In a first world country such as the United States of America there can be no excuse. As long as the community (and corporate community particularly) see no real consequences occurring with respect to the “decision-makers”, we cannot expect to see better decisions.

Did the regulator learn?

The evidence shows that BP learnt very little from Texas City. So don’t expect much to change. I am not normally a big stick guy. Regretfully even I am now forced to confront the reality of the “bigger stick” – it’s time to get it out! Not only have I come to that view after seeing dozens of disaster investigations with very similar themes.

It is also because I am increasingly seeing employers willing to place their employees in toxic work environments. Because they “know” they are going to get away with it. Or, if they do get the stick, it
shall be a twig, not a branch.

In the McWane saga (PBS), the employer avoided the worst prosecutions by splashing money around at politicians. Indeed they even went to the Regulator and employed the guy who had been tasked with leading the prosecution against McWanes – we shall have to guess how many pieces of silver changed hand.

The McWane’s got away with murder. This family was one of the richest in the USA. Sadly, money talks, and workers die.

Let us see whether money talks, and what else it says, apart from ‘political conspiracy’ allegations, after the Upper Big Branch coal mining disaster. And let us see what the regulator and the state says of its own inability to enforce mining health and safety.

Massey Energy operated 50 sites throughout the USA. They were amongst the largest coal producers in the USA. Entire communities owe their livelihood (and slow death) to this corporation.

If there was ever a case where justice is not only done, it must be seen to be done, then Massey Energy Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster is the case, and it should be a criminal case.

• This blog is an extract from A Second on Safety posted on last year.

• David Broadbent will present a theme at a High Reliability Organisations (HRO) seminar in South Africa in 2012, as posted on Seminars calendar, under Former editor’s Choice.


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