On April 5, 2010, a coal dust explosion occurred approximately 1,000 feet underground in what was the worst coal mining accident in 40 years. During this accident, 29 of the 30 coal miners in Upper Big Branch Mine died. Investigations found Massey Energy, the company that owns the Upper Big Branch Mine, failed to maintain ventilation systems, which caused methane levels to increase to dangerous and highly flammable amounts.
In 2004 to 2009, Massey Energy received 1,342 safety citations. In 2009, the year prior to the explosion, Massey Energy was fined $382,000 for serious violations, including lacking ventilation, proper equipment plans, failure to utilize safety plans properly and 57 safety infractions, for which 50 of those safety violations were categorized as “unwarrantable failures to comply.” Two days before the explosion, the mine received two safety citations. Ultimately, the investigations found the company was grossly negligent in regards to workplace safety.
Donald L. Blankenship, the chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, was not accused directly for the cause of the coal mining accident. However, the tragedy prompted an inquiry that showed Blankenship had deep knowledge of the mines and how they functioned, given the many recorded telephone conversations on production reports. According to reports, Blankenship had a “stubborn focus on Massey’s financial standing,” and his demands put on supervisors implied that workers were to completely ignore safety standards to increase profits.
This past April, Blankenship was convicted for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards. Though this charge is only a misdemeanor that will force him to spend just one year in prison, federal officials say this is the first time a high-ranking company executive was convicted and served time for a workplace safety violation.
Executives who run coal mines, as well as all employers, have a fundamental obligation to keep workers safe. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) advocates that most workplace accidents are entirely preventable, and this coalmining accident is no different. No employer, even high-ranking executives, should be allowed to skirt safety regulations and endanger lives. That said, hopefully Blankenship’s conviction sets a precedent that allows workers to hold those in charge responsible for preventable workplace accidents.