We looked at this report briefly last week (pdf). I’ve had a chance since to read it. If you’re up for it, and want to know what happened, it’s a solid piece of work.
The narrative section is framed around the testimony of friends and family of one of the miners who didn’t get out in time. That’s important because one of the questions is who knew what, when, in terms of unusually dangerous working conditions (within a mine environment, so taking into account that this work has the potential to be dangerous, always).
But, that section (first 20 or so pages) is also very personal to that (named) miner and should be read in context to do the miner and his friends and family who were willing to talk to investigators justice, so I won’t pull out quotes.
What jumped out at me, as someone who knows nothing about mining, is how often the witnesses use the word “air”. “Air”, here, has specific technical meanings in mining. They move it from place to place, they measure it, they know how it changes when traveling over or displaced by water, so it’s unremarkable that they would use the word all the time. This is what they do for a living. But they also use the ordinary meaning that’s familiar to all of us. The fact that they need “enough air” and are constantly aware of that comes through very powerfully, and that’s what makes the narrative of the events difficult and sad to read.
The events are presented from the view of the people in the mine. That sole persepective wasn’t the preference of the investigators, or the state of West Virginia. Management and others were subpoenaed, and chose not to speak:
The Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from requiring a person to be a witness against himself involuntarily or to furnish evidence against himself. The following individuals, when they were subpoenaed by the State of West Virginia, through their attorneys invoked their Fifth Amendment rights and declined to be interviewed by investigators
I pulled the following section out because it goes to the specific disincentives to safety the company put in place that contributed, over time, to increasing the risk of a disaster.
Intimidation of workers. There is ample evidence through testimony that miners were discouraged from stopping production for safety reasons. Workers said that those who questioned safety conditions were told to get on with production.
In another instance, Tailgate 22 foreman Brian “Hammer” Collins described what happened when he stopped his crew from running coal because he found inadequate ventilation when he did his pre-shift exam. Collins didn’t allow any work to start on his section until the ventilation problems were resolved – a process that took about an hour. When he came to work the next day, he said Performance Coal Vice President Jason Whitehead suspended him for three days for “poor work performance.” Collins stood his ground. “I am hard-headed…I said, ‘No, if I ain’t got the air in my last open break I cannot load coal”.
Enhanced Employment Agreements. The company also used “enhanced employment agreements” to discourage workers from complaining about safety concerns or working conditions. Under terms of the agreements, the company offered pay increases, bonuses and guaranteed employment in exchange for employees’ agreeing to work for a three-year period. However, by accepting the company’s terms, the miners became “at will” workers. If they left voluntarily or if their employment was terminated “for lack of performance as determined by management, unacceptable conduct … or a serious safety infraction,” the miners had to return the “enhanced pay” and all of the bonuses received under the contract. They also could not work at any competitor’s coal mine within a 90-mile radius of the mine where they had worked.
The enhanced pay is subject to statutory deductions and withholdings, including state and federal income taxes, and Social Security and Medicare. Even if an employee banked 100 percent of the enhanced pay, he would not have enough to buy out his contract because the net take-home pay from the bonus would always be less than the gross amount of the enhanced pay he is obligated to pay back. The miner would have to delve into personal savings to make up the difference or face being sued and having to pay a financial penalty. In effect, the enhanced employment agreement effectively handcuffs the employee.