Tuesday, September 05, 2006

West Virginia's New Mine Safety Head Comes Straight From Industry: Can This Marriage Survive?

I read the other day that West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin had appointed a new director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training -- Ronald L. Wooten, former vice president of safety for CONSOL Energy Inc. from 1983 until 1998, a lawyer and lobbyist for CONSOL before that, and a lawyer for the American Mining Congress, an industry group. Manchin called Wooten “truly a recognized figure in the mine safety community.”

Odd, I thought, to appoint an industry guy after all the recent problems in West Virginia mines and the controversy over Bush's nomination of former coal industry executive Richard Stickler to head MSHA. But I didn't think too much more about it. I mean it's possible that industry people can do a good job overseeing the industry they came out of. Right?

Right, according to Manchin:

Manchin rejected any comparisons between Wooten’s appointment and the criticism President Bush has received for appointing longtime coal industry officials to run the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“It’s not like I went out and just plucked him from one of the coal companies,” Manchin said in an interview.

But then I came across this article by Ken Ward in the Charleston Gazette. Well, once again, I've apparently been far too innocent and naive. Ward, as you've probably noticed if you've been following the mine safety issues that I've written about, has a habit of coming up with information that no one else seems able to find.

And he hasn't disappointed in this case. Wooten, according to Ward's findings, has more than a few skeletons in his closet.

First, there was a little recordkeeping scandal.
Wooten was CONSOL’s top safety officer during a well-publicized scandal over the company’s alleged efforts to cover up accidents to score a better safety record.

In December 1986, the Wall Street Journal published detailed accounts of how CONSOL officials pressured miners to take vacation days or recuperate at work, rather than call in sick after they were hurt on the job.

After the Journal story, an MSHA investigation found 33 injury reporting violations at the company’s Osage No. 3 Mine outside Morgantown and 24 such violations at its Buchanan Mine near Grundy, Va.

Eventually, CONSOL returned MSHA’s coveted Sentinels of Safety Award, which the Osage No. 3 Mine had received for reporting no injuries in 1985.

Asked about the matter Thursday, Wooten repeated his response from the time — which was to blame the return of the award on a change in MSHA injury reporting rules that the agency applied retroactively.

“As I remember it now, it was a real joke,” Wooten said in an interview.
Yeah, pretty funny.

Not so funny was a small matter of a few contractors getting killed on CONSOL sites, and a little problem -- apparently still unresolved in Wooten's mind -- of who's responsible.
Wooten was also CONSOL’s top safety officer in March 1992, when an explosion at the company’s Blacksville No. 1 Mine killed three contractors and a CONSOL engineer.

The accident occurred while contractors from the firm M.A. Heston of Fairmont were using acetylene torches to weld pipes just above a concrete and steel cap being used to seal a shaft of the closed Blacksville mine.

After its investigation, MSHA concluded that CONSOL did not ensure adequate ventilation of the shaft, or make sure its contractors tested for methane before lighting their torches.

MSHA uncovered a December 1985 memo in which Wooten instructed CONSOL employees not to inspect workplaces of contract workers for safety violations, or require contractors to fix violations they happen to see.

“That was a memo that, frankly, I’m not proud of, not because of the concept or the contents, but because of the way it may have been read by some people,” Wooten said.

Wooten said he still supports a policy under which CONSOL and other major coal operators do not take responsibility for ensuring safe operations by their contractors.

“It would be ridiculous for us to try to tell [contractors] how to conduct their work and protect their employees,” Wooten said. (emphasis added)
This is a rather upsetting statement. MSHA's policy has been to hold both the operators and the contractors responsible for safety. The Government Accountability Office recently criticized MSHA for not keeping track of contractor injuries and therefore not able to judge the effectiveness of enforcement. The GAO was concerned because
the proportion of miners who work for contractors had grown significantly since 1981, when they represented only 5 percent of all mine workers. Our analysis showed that the percentage of underground coal miners who work for contractors increased from 13 percent in 1993 to 18 percent in 2002, and the percentage who incurred nonfatal injuries also increased over this period.
Giving coal operators a free ride when they hire contractors gives them the green light to shirk responsibility for safety of a growing part of their workforce. How convenient.

The United Mineworkers say they'll give Wooten a chance, although they would have preferred the appointment of UMW member C.A. Phillips, currently the agency’s deputy director.

Davitt McAteer, who headed MSHA during the Clinton administration and currently Manchin’s special assistant on mine safety issues, was a bit more skeptical -- although still diplomatic.
“He was a very strong advocate for the industry,” McAteer said. “The difference is that the position he is accepting is a position which requires a person to be a strong advocate for the miners, the companies and for everyone.”

Wooten disagreed.

“Obviously, there will be a transition, but I don’t think it’s going to be that dramatic,” Wooten said.

“I’m not wedded to the industry,” he said. “I am wedded to mine safety.”
Well, it may be a bit more complicated than who says they're wedded to what. We can throw rice and hope for the best, but I'm predicting a rocky marriage.

The question here, of course, is whether there are any inherent conflicts between how management often sees safety issues, and how workers and unions view safety issues. Is workplace safety simply a technical issue? Given that there are rarely limitless resources, is there ever a tradeoff between management's emphasis on production and workers' interest in coming home alive and in one piece at the end of the day? Are there inherent conflicts between how much control workers should have over safety conditions and how much control management should have? Is there a conflict between being "a strong advocate for miners" and "a strong advocate for the industry? And if there are, in fact, such legitimate conflicts, who should be in charge of the safety aspects of the industry?