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Creating a Culture of Contempt for Safety

Yet another former Massey Energy employee has been sentenced on federal charges that he conspired to impede MSHA inspections and violated federal mine safety and health laws.

Old news, you might think. After all, several Massey employees from the Upper Big Branch coal mine – where 29 miners died in an explosion and fire on April 5, 2010 – have been sentenced to prison for the same or similar charges: impeding MSHA inspections by warning mine employees that inspectors were on their way and violating mine safety and health regulations for such things as falsifying records, disposing of security-related documents and rewiring a methane gas detector on a piece of equipment so that high levels of gas wouldn’t trigger an automatic shut off of the equipment.

What’s interesting in the case of David Hughart, a former Massey Energy official who was sentenced Sept. 10 to 42 months in jail after pleading guilty to two federal charges, is that he did not work at the Upper Big Branch coal mine. His plea deal involved crimes he admitted committing between 2000 and 2010 at Massey's White Buck operations in Nicholas County, where two mid-level foremen and a Massey operating subsidiary were prosecuted five years ago for criminal safety violations.

Hughart, the former president of Massey’s Green Valley Resource Group and the highest-ranking official to be convicted in the ongoing federal investigation, cooperated with prosecutors and allegedly implicated others at Massey Energy – including former CEO Don Blankenship – in a conspiracy to impede MSHA inspections and violate federal mine safety and health regulations.

Here at EHS Today, we just selected 16 companies to name as America’s Safest Companies for 2013. The CEO of one of the companies – a fairly large company with operations around the globe – signed the application himself. Every single winning entry discussed the commitment to world-class safety of their CEOs, presidents and board members. Every single winning entry talked about the dedication of all employees to safety because the leadership team had instilled safety into the corporate culture and working safely was as much a part of their culture as manufacturing great products or building safe structures.

It is apparent from the ever-widening criminal investigation of Massey Energy’s operations that there was nothing remotely resembling a safety culture at the company. Safety was not even a consideration in a corporate culture where money and production were kings.

This is evident in the MSHA citations racked up just at the Upper Big Branch mine: From 2005 to May 2010,MSHA issued a total of 1,342 safety violations for the mine, proposing $1.89 million in fines. Massey Energy contested the citations and managed to keep the cases tied up in court by taking advantage of loopholes in MSHA regulations and procedures. In the 2 months before the disaster that killed 29 miners, the mine was evacuated three times for high methane levels.

And that’s just one mine, one mine that came to the attention of the world because of a disaster.

At the very least, you’d think the CEO of a company would perceive 1,342 safety violations and nearly $2 million in fines in a five-year period at one facility as a wake-up call. I’d hazard to guess that those numbers are large enough to grab the attention of just about every CEO in the world.

What Hughart’s conviction tells us is that lies and greed were part of Massey Energy’s corrupt corporate culture, a way of doing business that had to be apparent and approved by the CEO. Don Blankenship claims he had no idea that his mines were being operated and managed in a way that made them intrinsically unsafe, even deadly. Bad employees! Bad! Bad! Bad!

While I strongly believe that the men sentenced in the Massey Energy cases deserve every second they spend in prison – deserve more prison time, in my opinion, than their sentences call for – I think that their crimes are small potatoes compared to the inherently criminal corporate culture created and fostered by Don Blankenship.

As far as I’m concerned, Blankenship's "leadership" contributed to the deaths of his employees. And I hope that at some point, he’s charged with criminal activity, convicted of a whole host of crimes and spends the rest of his life in prison.

TAGS: Safety
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