Massey Vet Blasts Blankenship, Company’s Safety Practices

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Jeff Harris, of Beckley, W.Va., is an underground coal miner who once worked for Massey Energy. For that experience, he was on Capitol Hill this afternoon testifying about the company’s safety record. And his story doesn’t even remotely resemble the picture Massey has tried to paint this month of a company dedicated to the safety of its workers.

“I feared for my safety the whole time that I worked for them,” Harris said, adding that he quit for that reason after about six months. “I’d rather starve to death.”

Of note, many of Harris’ experiences are strikingly similar to those of Chuck Nelson, another former Massey miner who spoke with TWI from his West Virginia home last week.

Here, for example, is Harris describing Massey’s ventilation systems:

When we got to a section to mine coal, they’d tear down the ventilation curtain. The air was so thick you could hardly see in front of you. When an MSHA inspector came to the section, we’d hang the curtain, but as soon as the inspector left, the curtain came down again.

And here’s Nelson describing the ritual of Massey officials when a safety inspector gets to the gates:

They call and tell us to start hanging our curtains, start cleaning the coal dust up, start rock-dusting the ribs — get everything right because he’s on his way in there. …

But as soon as they’re on their way outside — before they get outside — these line curtains are jerked down again. They’re back to doing the same old business as usual.

Harris on Massey’s adherence to methane-detecting policies:

Sometimes, if we had heard that there was too much gas, we’d be told the problem was taken care of and not to worry. We might not believe them that the problem was fixed, but we had a job to do and we worked. Then when an inspector came by, he would find excess gas and shut us down. This showed us that the Company couldn’t be trusted.

And Nelson:

They had sniffers — what they called sniffers — and whenever you hit a pocket of methane [above a certain level], it shut the power off the [coal harvester]. … But I’ve seen these sniffers bridged out.

Harris on so-called “lost-time accidents”:

Reports about Massey’s lost time accidents are also misleading. I was lucky and never got hurt while I worked for Massey, but I know plenty of other guys who did get injured. If you got hurt, you were told not to fill out the lost time accident paperwork. The Company would just pay guys to sit in the bathhouse or to stay home if they got hurt – anything but fill out the paperwork.

Nelson discussing the same trend:

I’ve hauled people out of the mines on a stretcher, at Massey mines. … And the very next day you’ll see ‘em walking up the hill, coming back to the mine office on crutches and [in] neck braces — just to keep from having a lost-time accident, to keep ‘em from filling out an accident report.

Here’s Harris describing why workers didn’t complain about the safety conditions:

Either you worked or you quit. If you complained, you’d be singled out and get fired. Employees were scared, but like me they have to feed their family. Jobs are scarce, and good paying coal mining jobs are hard to come by.

Nelson on the same topic:

I knew that if I said something, I wouldn’t have a job tomorrow.

Harris, who has also worked for union mines, said that, on safety issues, the difference between union and non-union mines is night and day. Union miners, he said, can report safety concerns without the fear of losing their jobs. “Those men at Massey,” he said, “they don’t have that right.”

Nelson said much the same thing last week:

When we were all union, if there was something that came up, it wasn’t no problem at all to shut that mine down until everything was fixed. Non-union [workers], they ain’t got that right.

Almost appears to be a pattern of violations.

Although no one from Massey appeared at Tuesday’s hearing, Bruce Watzman, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, played the part of surrogate defender.

“I don’t think there’s much value in ostracizing an individual or an organization,” Watzman said in response to a question from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) about Massey’s safety record. Watzman also said that policymakers shouldn’t overreact to this month’s deadly mining blast by enacting new mine safety regulations. The current safeguards, he said, are plenty tough enough when they’re properly enforced.

Congress, though, seems poised to disagree.

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