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Coal mine, oil rig disasters highlight problems with government safety awards

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 12:39 AM

It's an annual ritual that gives government-regulated companies something to brag about: safety commendations from regulatory agencies that praise their stellar work environments and low rates of worker injuries.

But recent disasters in coal mines and on oil rigs have illustrated the pitfalls of this long tradition.

Worker safety advocates say the awards - given, in some instances, to companies involved in disasters - show the dangers posed when federal agencies become too cozy with the industries they regulate.

The awards are touted on company Web sites. And the government-backed trophies and plaques fill the office walls and display cases at companies such as Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where 29 men died in April, and Transocean, owner of the Gulf of Mexico oil rig where 11 workers died two weeks later.

"This allows companies to promote themselves a certain way. Shareholders and employees are told: 'The government thinks we are safe,' " said Celeste Monforton, a former senior official at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and assistant research professor in occupational health at George Washington University. "It can potentially be used as a shield against criticism when problems arise."

Which is what happened after the Upper Big Branch mine exploded this spring. Within days, the MSHA released an 11-page report it wrote for President Obama detailing Massey's safety record that characterized it as "troublesome."

Massey immediately pointed to the three Sentinels of Safety awards it won six months earlier from the MSHA and the National Mining Association. It was the most a mining company had received in a single year from the awards program, which dates to Herbert Hoover's administration.

Last week, the Labor Department, which oversees the MSHA, said that Massey's injury data, which the awards are based on, are inaccurate. The department cited a Sept. 30 letter in which Massey told shareholders it has underreported injury data by as much as 37 percent.

The data serve as the basis for the Sentinels of Safety awards, which are given to mines that have no injuries for a year or longer. Other MSHA-endorsed safety awards are also based on low or reduced injury rates.

But the self-reported numbers make the awards potentially dangerous, experts said.

"These numbers are easily manipulated. Workers are under enormous pressure to not report when they are hurt," said Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO. "One of the problems is hazardous conditions are not identified and reported to authorities."

MSHA officials declined to comment on their awards. Massey officials attributed the underreported data to "reporting errors" that have been corrected. The company defended the awards.

"Every day, coal miners get up before dawn to provide energy for our nation, and we see nothing wrong with the government recognizing those miners who do their jobs safely," said Shane Harvey, Massey's vice president and general counsel.

The list of mining companies with these safety awards - and conflicting safety data - extends beyond Massey.

Consol Energy's Blacksville Mine in West Virginia and Bailey Mine in Pennsylvania both received the Joseph A. Holmes Safety Award, a MSHA-industry joint honor, in 2009. But they also appeared that year as No. 16 and No. 17, respectively, on the MSHA's list of the 20 mines with the nation's worst safety violation records.

In an e-mail response, Consol spokesman Joe Cerenzia said, "The number of citations a particular mining operation receives is not a fair indicator of the overall safety performance of that operation."

Other recent safety awards that have puzzled occupational health experts and fueled their calls for change include honors from the since-renamed Minerals Management Service, which gave a 2009 Safety Award for Excellence (SAFE) to Transocean for its operations in the Gulf of Mexico, less than a year before its oil rig exploded.

At the time of the explosion, oil giant BP, which leased the rig, was in the running for a 2010 SAFE award. The award ceremony was canceled, and the agency quickly removed BP as a finalist from its Web site.

The agency declined to comment.

Worker safety experts say they hope the recent disasters - and a few past ones - along with the awkward timing of some awards will persuade government agencies to rethink how they are run.

Monforton, for example, has called for companies to be temporarily disqualified in some cases. "How about a three- or five-year moratorium when there's a fatality?" she asked.

Monforton cited a Holmes safety award that was given in 2008 to Massey's Aracoma Alma mine in West Virginia, where two men died in an underground fire two years earlier.

At the time of the award ceremony, the government was still quarreling with Massey over related fines.

"They are giving awards to the people who are about to get their bell rung," said Bruce Stanley, a lawyer representing widows in the Aracoma mine disaster, referring to the upcoming sentencing of four Massey employees who were convicted of negligence in the incident.

"It strains credibility to believe the management team should be patted on the back for their alleged safety efforts."

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