Disasters call federal honors into question

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By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010

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 had underreported injury data by as much as 37 percent.

Such 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.

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