10222017Headline:

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Greg Webb
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West Virginia Coal Mining Company Cavalier About Safety

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Last Monday, twenty-five miners perished at the Massey Energy coal mine. As more details begin to surface about the sorted safety history at the mine, there are also concerns being raised regarding the lavish lifestyle and supposedly cavalier attitude of the company’s controversial chief executive, Don Blankenship, as purported in lawsuits and corporate documents. One miner, who refused to disclose his name, claims Blankenship always focused on the bottom line and would constantly push the miners to their limits. When Blankenship first took control of the mine, he convinced the miners to abandon their loyalty to the labor union that represented them. As soon as the union was gone, however, work hours increased from eight to twelve hours, bonuses were cut, and if they got injured, their jobs were in jeopardy. The public record concerning Blankenship’s bottom-line approach is mostly gathered from a series of investor lawsuits filed against the CEO; the investors criticized Blankenship numerous times for his appalling approach to safety and "extravagant" package of perks and pay. In just one year, Blankenship received $33.1 million in compensation, lives in a house that is owned by Massey but will become his property if he leaves the company, and flies to resorts in the company owned jet.

Investors were also concerned about the safety risks associated with Blankenship’s management style. In June 2007, two board members resigned from Massey’s board of directors after submitting a resignation letter saying they were leaving partly because of Blankenship’s "poor risk management" and the company’s "confrontational handling" of regulatory matters. In 2008, a group of shareholders sued Massey’s board of directors claiming safety violations allowed employees to die in preventable accidents. Many of these battles became material for the 2008 book "Coal River", written by Michael Shnayerson. In an interview with ABC News, Shnayerson said there was no question in his mind that Blankenship knew about the safety citations at the Upper Big Branch because of his propensity to micromanage; Blankenship would even call the mine any time coal production slowed. Although some may portray Blankenship as a villain, Shnayerson admits that the CEO is respected by many people in West Virginia because of his straight talking. In fact, many Massey employees have rallied in Blankenship’s defense regarding the mine incident.

According to federal mining data, when the labor union was eliminated, citations and safety violations started to rise. On the day of explosion, for example, two violations were cited. The sister of a miner at Upper Big Branch stated there were so many citations, an explosion or accident was imminent. Blankenship has refuted this statement, however, saying there were no further measures his company could have taken to prevent the disaster. Though he did acknowledge the company’s history of problems, Blankenship also said the mine was deemed safe by federal inspectors. He also claimed that in eighteen of the last twenty years Massey has been safer than the industry average.

This writer’s opinion is that, while coal mining is certainly not the safest occupation, accidents can be prevented if the company (employer) invests the necessary resources to emphasize safety. Those resources include money, time, and equipment. Accidents can be prevented, or, at the least, greatly minimized. Certainly, tragedies of this magnitude can be prevented. Is this tragedy an example ofprofits over safety? Are there any goods reason for this company to have had as many violations as reported over the years?