Pork plant in illness probe wins worker safety award
Safety award toÂ Massey mine whereÂ twoÂ miners were killedÂ Â
First, I thoughtÂ these wereÂ bad April Fools’ jokes orÂ maybe an article fromÂ theÂ ONION.Â Â ButÂ no,Â these headlines are no joke.Â A pork packing house in Austin, MN, a worksite where at least 12 workersÂ have developed an autoimmune disorder, is receiving the Award of Honor from theÂ American Meat Institute for itsÂ worker safety and health program.Â (This is the plant with theÂ “blowing brains” table,” where workers usedÂ compressed air onÂ pig skullsÂ to harvest the brains, resulting inÂ aerosolized brain matter which caused them toÂ develop severe neurological symptoms.)Â Â
Worse yet, is the recognition to MasseyÂ Energy’s Aracoma Alma mine, whereÂ Mr. Don Bragg, 33Â and Mr. Ellery Hatfield, 46, died in January 19, 2006Â in anÂ underground mine fire; MasseyÂ announced it’s receivingÂ a safety award from MSHA.Â Just one year ago, this veryÂ sameÂ MSHA,Â issued a record-setting $1.5 million penalty against Massey for itsÂ “reckless disregard for safety”Â in the disaster which killed Bragg and Hatfield.Â Â
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.Â Â The long list of awardees from this year’s American Meat Institute annual meeting includesÂ five plants in theÂ SmithfieldÂ Company (although not the one in TarÂ Heel, NCÂ ) and numerous Cargill, Sara Lee and Tyson facilities.Â Our friends at OSHA Undergound Â 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.Â
Massey’s news release indicates that theÂ Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) “has selected” theÂ Aracoma Alma mineÂ “to receive the Pacesetter Award for outstanding safety achievements.Â …The awards honor operations with exceptionally low lost-time accident rates.”
This mine federal inspection historyÂ tells a different story.Â BetweenÂ January 1, 2006 and April 1, 2008Â (recall the Aracoma Alma disaster occurred on January 19, 2006), this mine has been cited for nearlyÂ 1,200Â violations of MSHA health and safety standards, with 665 of themÂ designated “serious and substantial.”Â Moreover, this Massey operationÂ has been assessed more thanÂ $2,226,000 in monetary penalties, and they’ve only paid $35,651.Â The vast majority of theÂ violations are being contested, including the dozens of penalties associated with theÂ Aracoma Alma disaster which are classified asÂ “reckless disregard” for miners’Â safety.Â
So, how is it that MSHA has decided that this firm deserves a safety award?
An inquiry made byÂ 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.Â 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?Â 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 baseÂ “safety awards” exclusively on companies’ reports (excuse me, lack of reports) of work-related injuries.Â
The Massey Energy company isÂ 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 noÂ carbon monoxide (CO) alarm unitÂ 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 longwallÂ mining unit where theÂ fire originated.
- Mine maps located on the surface and underground were notÂ 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.Â 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 Â its quarterly inspections at the underground coal mines in the region.Â UntilÂ MSHA demonstrates it is fulfilling its STATUTORY responsibilities, it should leave theÂ back-slapping and high-fiving with mine operators to somebody else.Â
If proponents of these awards insist they continue, what about aÂ moratorium on receiving an award forÂ anyÂ company withÂ aÂ fatality or permanently-disabling injury case in theÂ last 5 years?Â
What about also requiring proposed recipients to open up theirÂ workers’ compensation records and health insurance records to verify the accuracy of theirÂ 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.Â If Mr. Blankenship insists otherwise, than it is truly AMAZINGÂ howÂ Massey turned things around and made theÂ Aracoma AlmaÂ “safe,” in lightning speed.Â Â It tells me thatÂ all theÂ belly aching I’ve heard over theÂ years from mine operators about the burden of safety improvements is just a bunch of BS.Â Â
*Note:Â Â I contacted a former colleague in the agency who confirmed that the so-called “Pacesetters Award” isÂ NOT part of MSHA and the National Mining Association’s “Sentinels of Safety” award.Â TheÂ Sentinels of Safety award program began inÂ 1925.Â It’s had its own troubles, which I’ll cover in a near future post.
Celeste Monforton, MPHÂ worked at the US Dept of Labor from 1991-2001, including at MSHA as a special assistant toÂ the Assistant Secretary.Â She is completing her doctorate in public health at the George Washington University School of Public Health.Â Her doctoral research includes analyzing injury dataÂ forÂ surface quarries, sand & gravel and other mining operations effected by MSHA’sÂ Part 46 training regulation which took effect in October 2000.