Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

UBB mine disaster: the plot thickens as former CEO Blankenship implicated

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

In the ongoing saga of the federal investigation into the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster that resulted in the deaths of 29 miners, things recently took a dramatic turn. The legal-criminal proceedings have resulted in four convictions to date. Now, in the most recent proceedings, a top Massey official has implicated former CEO Don Blakenship.

According to a news report by Ken Ward Jr in the Charleston Gazette:

Former Massey official David C. Hughart pleaded guilty to two federal criminal charges that he plotted with other company officials to routinely violate safety standards and then cover up the resulting workplace hazards.

But a fairly routine plea hearing here took a surprising twist when U.S. District Judge Irene Berger pressed Hughart to name his co-conspirators and Hughart responded, “the chief executive officer.”

Hughart did not use Blankenship’s name, but Blankenship was CEO of Massey from 2000 until 2010, during the period when the crimes Hughart admitted to committing occurred.

On his Coal Tattoo blog, Ward looks at media coverage this news generated and how it was reported. He talks about what’s next in the Upper Big Branch criminal probe. The prosecution has stated that “This is not the end of the investigation.”

You can follow Don Blankenship’s doings on his fairly new website, where he is self billed as “Native of Appalachia, Job Creator, CEO, and American competitionist.” He posts his thoughts about mine safety, among other things, in an essay page. In his page of media coverage, Ken Ward’s clips and the UBB mining investigations are unsurprisingly absent.
You can also follow his opinions and comments on Twitter at @DonBlankenship. Ironically, his most recent post accuses President Obama of lying, with a link to an essay which claims that Obama lied about climate change in his State of the Union address.

We’re coming up on the third anniversary of this terrible Massey mine tragedy. The investigation and criminal probe of company officials continues, but it’s important to look beyond that to ensure future safety. Ken Ward takes the MHSA to task for waiting 32 years to enforce the landmark mine safety act of 1977.

We point you to the Miners Memorial Page at the tribute site, Faces of the Mine. Scrolling through a page of 29 portraits brings home the enormity of this tragedy in a visceral way.

More charges in Upper Big Branch Mine disaster criminal probe

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

There’s breaking news in the ongoing criminal investigation into the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 miners in 2010. The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. reports that a mining manager has been charged with conspiracy. supervisor Gary May is charged with plotting “with others known and unknown” to provide advance warning of inspections, concealing violations, falsifying records, and taking steps to conceal actual work conditions. He is also charged with disabling a methane monitoring system a few months before the explosions.

May is the third person to be charged in the ongoing criminal investigation and is said to be cooperating with investigators. Ward reports that, “Next week, former Massey Energy security director Hughie Elbert Stover faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger after being convicted of lying to investigators and trying to destroy evidence about Massey’s practice of warning underground workers of impending government inspections.”

At his Coal Tattoo blog, Ward offers more context about May and the charges against him. Ward, other industry observers, and other media indicate that the way the charges are structured would seem to indicate that the investigators are looking to upper levels of the organization. It would seem that there are more shoes to drop in this sad saga.
For ongoing coverage of Massey’s UBB mine disaster, see Coal Tattoo / Upper Big Branch Disaster and the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster archives at The Charleston Gazette.

MSHA: Upper Big Branch Miner Deaths Were “Entirely Preventable”

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Every time Massey sent miners into the UBB Mine, Massey put those miners’ lives at risk” – Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health and chief of MSHA

A scathing report issued by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration yesterday put the blame for the coal mining disaster that claimed 29 lives on “a workplace culture that valued production over safety.” The report characterized the coal mining disaster as “entirely preventable”, one that could have been avoided if long-standing and well-known safety standards had been followed. The report documents flagrant safety violations, routine coverups of violations, and intimidation of workers to keep them from reporting safety hazards and violations.
Ken Ward, who has covered the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster with painstaking detail in The Charleston Gazette, reports:

“Outlining flagrant safety violations and a practice of trying to cover up major hazards, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials cited mine operator Performance Coal Co. with 369 violations — including 12 that directly contributed to the disaster — and levied more than $10.8 million in fines.

Both the fines and the settlement are by far the largest ever in a case over worker safety in the mining industry.”

In addition, federal prosecutors announced a $200 million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, the firm that bought Massey Energy. The settlement calls for $80 million to be directed to enhanced safety at all the company’s underground mines, as well as a dedicated training center and a $48 million trust to fund mine safety research at academic institutions. The settlement also includes $46.5 million in restitution for the families of the disaster victims.
Ward states:

Key to the deal, though, is that — unlike a previous deal with Massey following the Aracoma Mine fire — the Justice Department is not agreeing to never bring charges against any individual executives, officers or employees of Massey or Performance. Goodwin said resolution of issues with Alpha allows prosecutors to focus their resources on potential cases against such individuals.

In addition to his newspaper reports, Ward covers related events at his Coal Tattoo blog. Of particular note is a post in which he talks more about the settlement and how U.S. Attorney’s criminal probe will continue. He quotes one US attorney as saying, “If anything, certain aspects of our investigation are going into high gear.”

All eyes will be on Alpha going forward. Their buyout occurred last June despite intense opposition, questions about events, and allegations of secret deals revolving around the $8.5 billion sale. Shortly after this deal, Alpha joined industry opposition to tougher safety rules.

The report was issued on the 104th anniversary of the worst mining disaster in U.S. history – the coal mining explosions at Monongah W.V. that claimed 362 lives. While mining safety has improved in the decades since, yesterday’s report demonstrates there are many more improvements that could and must occur to protect workers.

Related prior posts

Massey Energy: The Don of an Era

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Last year 29 coal miners died in an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Don Blankenship, Massey CEO, blamed the explosion on federal interference and a gigantic methane bubble that percolated up from below the mine shafts. The bubble has burst, but not in the way Blankenship would have you believe.
An independent team appointed by the former West Virginia governor, Joe Manchin, and led by the former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer, has issued its findings, which are both unambiguous and scathing. There was no methane bubble. There was, instead, a pattern of negligence by management that led directly to the deaths of the miners.
As summarized in the New York Times, the report is a searing indictment of Massey’s management style:

“The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris,” the report concluded. “A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking.”

The report goes on to say that a “perfect storm” was brewing inside the mine, combining poor ventilation, equipment whose safety mechanisms were not functioning and coal dust, which, contrary to industry rules, had been allowed to accumulate, “behaving like a line of gunpowder carrying the blast forward in multiple directions.”

Given the uncompromising language of the report, Massey management may not enjoy the “exclusive remedy” protections of the workers comp statute. They are now vulnerable to charges of criminal negligence. I suspect that attorneys for the widows and children of the miners will look rather closely at the assets of Massey’s (now former) CEO.
Farewell, My Ugly
Don Blankenship resigned from his CEO post in December of last year. Don’t bother putting up a collection to buy this ethically-challenged titan of business a gold watch. In 2009 he earned $17.8 million, which does not include deferred compensation of an additional $27.2 million. There is no question that Blankenship’s leadership created profits for the company. Unfortunately, these profits came at the expense of the environment and of the men who extracted the coal from the West Virginia mountains.
The anecdote that tells you a lot about Blankenship involves his personal water supply. When Massey Energy activity poisoned the water reaching his own home, Blankenship ran a private pipeline to the next town, where clean water was readily available. His neighbors, lacking Blankenship’s resources, have to make do with the local, polluted water.
It will be interesting to see what happens next. In a just world, Blankenship would be held accountable for his actions as Massey’s CEO. But we do not live in a world where justice prevails very often. Blankenship will likely continue to enjoy his retirement years, drinking clean mountain waters, railing about government interference, buying a few politicians and generally living the good life. We can only hope that each and every night his dreams are haunted by visions of the 29 miners and their struggling families. That would be one form of justice indeed.

Risk, compensability, mousing elbow, medical costs, and other news briefs

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Cavalcade of Risk – Emily Holbrook is hosting the 131st edition of Cavalcade of Risk at one of our favorite risk-related blogs, Risk Management Monitor. Check it out!
Compensability issues – In disputes as to whether an employee’s injury or illness is eligible for benefits, courts look at the issues of whether the injury arose in the course and scope of employment. Roberto Ceniceros posts that while course and scope have generally been regarded as a single doctrine, that may be changing with the challenges posed by an increasingly mobile work force. See his blog post: “Course and scope” separated.
Safety for the solitary worker – Speaking of a mobile work force, do you have workers who work alone? Solitary work poses unique safety challenges. See Safety Daily Advisor’s tips for keeping solo workers safe.
Claims IT systems webinar – Health Strategy Associates has an upcoming webinar that may be of interest to some of our readers: the results of HSA’s First Annual Survey of Workers Comp Claims IT Systems. If the sponsoring organization’s name isn’t familiar to you, it’s our fellow blogger and friend Joe Paduda’s firm – he’s sponsoring the seminar in conjunction with colleague Sandy Blunt. If this interests you, act now – the webinar is scheduled for tomorrow!
Mining safety, one year later – On last week’s anniversary of the West Virginia Big Branch mine disaster that claimed 29 lives, the looks at progress – or lack of progress – in enhancing miner safety: Families of dead miners feel let down by Washington. The story reports that in the past year, a safety bill has failed and the backlog of safety cases has grown.
Top HR issuesWorkforce covers the top 10 HR concerns as reported by the Employers Resource Association. These issues are compiled from the more than 8,000 hotline calls made by the organization’s membership of 1,300 companies in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
Mousing elbow – As we incorporate more and more devices in our work-world, technology-related maladies seem to multiply. Greg LaRochelle of the MEMIC Safety Blog talks about Mousing Elbow and how to prevent it. See also Blackberry Thumb, Cell Phone Elbow, IPod Ear. Also, see our ergo tips for setting up a workstation.
Medical costs – Can making physicians aware of the costs for procedures help to curtail costs? Katherine Hobson of WSJ’s Health Blog reports on an interesting research project that showed a decrease in expenditures for routine lab tests when physicians were made aware of the overall costs for such procedures: “Cosimi tells the Health Blog the study represents “a good first step, just to show that there’s a problem, and a potential solution.” The goal would be to establish guidelines for proper testing. And he says it’s not just blood work that could benefit from this kind of approach. At his own transplant unit, he noticed changes in prescribing behavior simply by posting the very different costs of two similar antibiotics.”
Hidden costs – We all know the health risks of smoking and that smoking can contribute to comorbidities that hinder worker recovery. But there are lesser known risks that can contribute to claim costs, In PropertyCasualty360, Zack Craft of Total Medical Solutions talks about how smoking can damage sensitive medical equipment too, and a factor that adjusters should consider.
Wage & hour violations? There’s an app for that – If you feel like your employees are tracking you, they may well be. Employment attorney Michael Fox posts about the Department of Labor’s new timesheet i-phone app, which is intended to help employees track the hours they work and the wages they are owed. The DOL says that, “This information could prove invaluable during a Wage and Hour Division investigation when an employer has failed to maintain accurate employment records.”

News roundup: complex care, WV, VT, obesity & more

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Happy post holiday weekend. This is a big vacation week, but if you are one of the many who is on the job today, here’s a serving of a few news items that caught our attention.
Complex Care – here at Lynch Ryan, we focus on helping injured workers to recover and get back to normal life activities, including work, as soon as possible. But the reality is that some workers have serious injuries that require long-term recovery or permanent care. The Work Comp Complex Care Blog focuses on issues related to injured workers who require ongoing care. A few notable recent posts on things that can have a positive impact on outcome over the long term: Success Story: Simple Change Makes A Big Difference For Injured Worker and Standing Improves Mobility and Wellness in Patients Confined to Wheelchair.
West Virginia – We’ve been seeing a spate of stories about state workers comp programs moving from BrickStreet to private carriers. BrickStreet has been the sole provider of such insurance for government agencies, but that changed as of today, July 1. BrickStreet says this is to be expected, the same thing happened when competition went into effect for private sector clients two years ago.
Vermont is cracking down – Vermont employers who don’t carry workers comp beware: your business may be shuttered. Previously, when an employer was found to be without workers comp coverage, there was a five-day grace period to obtain coverage before business closure, along with a fine of $150 a day. The Vermont legislature recently increased penalties for noncompliance – employers found without workers comp coverage must now be closed immediately and fines have been increased to $250 per day. In addition, as of September, the Labor Department will add four limited service positions to step up enforcement.
OSHA challenge – CalOSHA is convening a panel on how to better protect workers in the adult film industry. OSHA’s existing state blood-borne pathogens regulations already cover condom use in productions filmed in the state, but many in the industry oppose mandatory condom use. It’s a serious issue — Los Angeles health officials have linked eight of as many as 22 possible HIV infections identified between 2004 and 2008 as tied to the industry.
Economic indicators – Roberto Ceniceros offers a roundup of recent economic news. In another post, he cites a recent news report noting that five Ohio pension funds and the state’s Bureau of Workers’ Compensation owned 30 million shares of BP stock, and wonders whether other state comp funds might be similarly affected.
Catastrophic risk scenarios – Jared Wade of Risk Management Monitor tells us about 7 potential disasters worse than the BP spill.
Obesity – At Booster Shots, the LA Times health blog, Tami Dennis notes that the obesity rate now tops 25% in two-thirds of the states, with Colorado being the only state coming in under 20%. The data is from a recent report F as in Fat: How obesity threatens America’s future (pdf), which was issued by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
DC court says no to PTSD – the D.C. Court of Appeals denied benefits to a former Pepco employer who sought benefits for a work-related case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Benjamin Ramey claimed that he suffered fear and embarrassment that resulted in PTSD after being tested for being drunk on the job. After the drug testing, Ramey was placed on suspension and enrolled in a rehabilitation program, but fired when he was ejected from treatment due to continued drinking.
Note to fraudsters – If you are out on workers’ comp disability benefits, you may want to think twice about accepting a part in a Hollywood film.

Mining safety: not just for China

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

When the whistle blows each morning
And I walk down in this cold dark mine,
I say a prayer to my dear savior
Please let me see the sunshine one more day. A Miner’s Prayer

Our Google alert for safety today turned up the tragic story of 153 Chinese mine workers trapped underground in a flooded mine. China is a country that sees an annual miner death toll in the thousands:

“China’s mining industry is the world’s deadliest. Accidents killed “only” 2,631 coal miners last year, fewer than half the 6,995 deaths in 2002. However, many analysts doubt that the figures reflect reality, believing instead that many deaths simply go unreported.”

Here in the US, some retired miners might recall a day when our coal mining fatalities were up in the quadruple digits. We experienced more than one thousand annual coal mining fatalities through 1947. It wasn’t until after 1985 that fatalities dropped consistently from triple to double digits. Our worst disaster occurred in 1907, when 362 boys and men died in West Virginia’s Monongah Mine disaster after an underground explosion. In fact, the plethora of mining disasters with hundreds of fatalities were a backdrop leading to the establishment of better worker protections, including a workers compensation system. One can only hope the public will call for increasing safety and reforms in China mines.
For more on this story, we went to the best and most knowledgeable mining media source we know and it did not disappoint: Ken Ward’s Coal Tattoo has the latest coverage of the China tragedy, including an update which notes that warnings were ignored before mine flood. Ken reports on mining for the Charlotte Gazette. He and the people of West Virginia know quite a bit about mine disasters. Earlier this year, Ken reported that the nation experienced a record low in mining deaths last year – 34 – but he asks if that is enough. Good question. A little over a week ago, Ward reported that fewer than 1 in 10 U.S. mines have added improved communications and tracking equipment that could help miners escape an explosion or fire – a requirement after the MINER Act, a law that was prompted by a series of mining fatalities in 2006, including the Sago mine disaster.
Our sympathy goes out to the families of the China miners, who are suffering through a terrible vigil, the way so many other miners’ families have suffered. We can only hope that tragedy will serve as a catalyst to better safety advancements in China. And despite the progress we’ve made here in the U.S. over the years, we see by the recent report about the lackadaisical measures taken to protect our own miners, our memories are short.

Prior posts on mining
Cold comfort: Crandall Canyon survivors and workers comp
A bad way to make a living – links to interesting historical exhibits on mining
The sad, quiet death of Bud Morris – father, husband, motorcycle aficionado
The feds and Phantom Miners
Sago mining disaster and workers comp: newly formed insurer to pay benefits
Sago mining deaths: a sorry way to begin the new year

Hot off the presses: Health Wonk Review; other WC news notes

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Paul Testa of New Health Dialogue Blog takes the notion of a carnival to heart while hosting this week’s edition of Health Wonk Review: All’s Fair in Love and Health Reform. Join him as he takes us along the Midway that is Pennsylvania Avenue, the big tent of bipartisanship, the funhouse mirrors of the health reform debates, and the roller coaster rides in Congress. Great edition!
And in other news…
Think you can safely text while driving? Studies show that drivers overestimate their ability to multitask behind the wheel. This game from the new York Times measures how your reaction time is affected by external distractions: Texting While Driving Simulator.
West Virginia touts progress one year into privatization. Cited among the successes: 154 insurance companies have active workers compensation policies in the voluntary market, the unfunded liability on “old fund” claims has dropped by more than half to $1,5 billion, and claim protests have fallen 68%.
Attorney Jon Gelman looks at the challenges that declining salaries and unemployment pose to workers’ compensation.
Roberto Ceniceros is blogging from the Disability Management Employer Coalition conference. His report yesterday focused on the generational impact on disability, with each generation facing different disability drivers.
James Dao in the New York Times posts about a new study pointing to an increase in mental health diagnoses in vets, usually PTSD or depression: “The study … was based on the department health records of 289,328 veterans involved in the two wars who used the veterans health system for the first time from April 1, 2002, to April 1, 2008. The researchers found that 37 percent of those people received mental health diagnoses. Of those, the diagnosis for 22 percent was post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, for 17 percent it was depression and for 7 percent it was alcohol abuse.”

Cavalcade of Risk and other news

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Check out Cavalcade of Risk #62 at Wenchypoo – the Wall Street Wipeout Edition!
The financial crisis and workers comp – According to a recent broker survey by Advisen, more than 75% of the respondents were confident or very confident about AIG’s financial security. Meanwhile, some preliminary news is starting to filter out about the effects of the market meltdown on workers comp. The Montana State Fund is down by about $26 million – the first of many such reports we are likely to hear. West Virginia is considering suing Wall St. firms due to losses in investments for public employee pension funds, workers comp, and other benefit programs. The meltdown is global. In Australia, WorkSafe Victoria reports a $600 million drop in the value of its investments.
New Jersey comp reform – Governor Jon Corzine just signed five bills to strengthen and reform New Jersey’s workers compensation system. The measures were taken to in response to an investigative series in the Star-Ledger last spring revealing a series of weaknesses and holes in the system which left injured workers facing lengthy delays for benefits and medial treatment. The new measures expedite hearings involving medical issues; mandate employer proof of workers compensation coverage and increases penalties for employers who fail to have coverage; increase the power of workers comp judges; and broaden public representation on the governing board of the Compensation Rating and Inspection Bureau.
Carrier preference surveyInsurance Journal recent conducted a survey of 1,600+ independent agents which offers a window on agent attitudes to the carriers they work with. Unsurprisingly, pricing is the the leading factor that influences most agents (63%) to select a new market over their preferred market. This is followed by coverage (55%), customer need or request (53%), or underwriting restrictions (51%). When asked why they avoid carriers, agents cited three issues: poor service, muddled carrier organization and erratic underwriting.