Coal miners shouldn’t have to sacrifice safety for paycheck

This story from NPR is tragic — it is an interview with the sister of Dean Jones, a coal miner who was killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 people on April 5, 2010, and it outlines not only the importance of safety precautions in coal mining, but the exploitative nature of the job because of the poverty and lack of jobs in Appalachia.

Dean’s sister Judy said he was obsessive about safety for his workers (Dean was a section boss) but Massey Energy — the company that ran the mine — wasn’t as concerned. In fact, Dean’s mother-in-law testified before Congress that, after stopping a mining operation because of safety concerns, the higher-ups threatened to fire him:

Jones stayed on the job, his sister says, because his son has cystic fibrosis, and might be difficult to insure if his dad switched jobs.

Dean wasn’t alone in worrying about the safety of the mines — many of Massey’s coal miners made similar complaints to family and friends about the poor ventilation and other safety concerns, but said they were afraid to speak up because it could mean losing their jobs. Some were even afraid of violent retribution for bringing up safety concerns — the wife of Michael Elswick, who was killed in the April explosion, said that her husband “always told me, ‘I know too much. If I get killed, it will not be my fault. If I get killed, hire a lawyer.'”

Steve Morgan’s 21-year-old son Adam was killed in the explosion, and Adam often confided in his dad about the terrible conditions. When he finally did tell his boss, his boss “told him if he was that scared, he needed to rethink his career.” And that attitude — the attitude that this is just the way things work, and if you can’t take it then get out — keeps Massey rich and workers quiet. They keep quiet because they need the jobs — the highest poverty and unemployment levels in Appalachia are in the areas with the most coal mining.

It is absolutely terrible and unjust that a company can exploit workers this way, and make them risk their lives to make a living every single day when those safety precautions exist and can be implemented. This is why the environmental justice movement exists — people are forced to work or live in toxic conditions, and their opposition often goes unheard or unsaid because they are poor and can’t afford to lose their jobs. Again, with the lack of jobs in Appalachia, for every person who wants to speak out about the safety conditions, Massey knows there are plenty of unemployed workers who would gladly replace that person.

The average number of coal-mining-related deaths per year seems to hover around 30, and no doubt, Massey sees such deaths as chump change — and I mean that literally, as I’m sure whatever profit it gains by working instead of stopping production to fix safety problems makes up for the settlements it doles out to families of the coal miners who are injured or killed because of those safety problems. It’s unfortunate for a company to view its workers this way, but the demand for cheap, coal energy is so high that it knows it can get away with view its workers that way.

The government has been right to conduct surprise and seemingly more thorough inspections, as with previous safety inspections at Massey mines, the second an inspector came, word went out and workers were instructed to make unsafe conditions momentarily look passable. According to Gary Quarles, who has 34 years experience in the coal mines and lost his son in the April explosion, workers also often felt out of place reporting safety violations after inspections:

In fact, for a miner working for Massey, the feeling is, “If an MSHA inspector fails to say anything about all these safety problems, what right do I have to say anything about them?” he said. “And I definitely would be terminated or retaliated against if I said anything.”

These surprise inspections are definitely necessary, as is some kind of protection for whistleblowers. The Mine Safety and Health Administration now has a hot line (877-827-3966) that people can call and leave anonymous tips concerning Massey safety problems. A safe working environment should be the rule, not the exception, and coal miners don’t deserve to be blackmailed and put in danger simply because Massey knows they can’t afford otherwise.

For a list of news articles concerning the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, visit http://www.wvgazette.com/News/montcoal or http://www.npr.org/series/131960177/massey-mine-investigation

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One Response to “Coal miners shouldn’t have to sacrifice safety for paycheck”

  1. Lanette Schultz Says:

    I am doing research for an English assignment about The Glace Bay Miners Museum, and my heart goes out to all the families and workers in this horrific position. I have been oblivious to the tragedies that continue to go on around us. I`m thankful to my english teacher for having us dig so deep into such a sad happening. My prayers and thoughts are with you all. The company shouldn`t get away with this, and anything we can do to make them realize we wont go away should be done. But what can I do by myself? Anyone?

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