Apr 9, 2010

Tragedy at West Virginia mine shines spotlight on workplace safety issues

Last week's explosion at the Massey Energy-owned Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia - a massive blast that killed 29 miners, with rescue efforts compromised by the build up of explosive gases - put the issue of worker safety, and employer negligence, front and center all week.

The coverage of the worst mining tragedy our country has seen in a quarter century - of the families affected, the rescue efforts, the history of mining disasters - has been pervasive and unceasing. Do a quick scan of the New York Times's online "Times Topic" page for "Mine Disasters" to understand the kind of attention this tragedy has gotten in the news media. On the government side, President Obama will be meeting with agency heads this week to assess the accident and determine how to prevent future ones.

But aside from the usual media frenzy and government scrambling that accompany most tragedies, the Upper Big Branch explosion has shone a spotlight on Massey Energy's terrible safety record, its despicable efforts to skirt regulation, and its hot-tempered, union-hating CEO Don L. Blankenship, and has led pundits to reconfirm what many of us have known for a long time: union mines are safer. Actually, union workplaces in almost any industry are safer, but we'll get to that another day.

The truth is, tragedies like the one(s) West Virginia suffered this week are sucker punches to our nation's collective sensibility. We can't believe such a thing could be allowed to happen. But here's a reality check, courtesy of BraveNewFoundation: 16 workers die on the job every day because of reckless negligence on the part of their employers.

The Upper Big Branch story is a complicated one - implicating a host of players, possibly including the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration - the details of which are still unfolding. But what is painfully clear is that our country's mechanisms for ensuring that workplaces are reasonably safe for workers are broken, and have been for a long time. We can only hope that last week's tragic events will be a wake up call.

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