Don Blankenship, Massey Energy’s former CEO (also known as “[o]ne of the most reprehensible bosses in recent history”), today goes to trial. The charges stem from the 2010 West Virginia Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion “that killed 29 workers, the U.S. industry’s deadliest in almost four decades.” (See some of our earlier coverage here, here, including how the families who sued were compensated. ) Writes Slate, “He will be brought to justice for allegedly shunning coal mine safety rules, conspiring to conceal safety violations, and lying to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and company shareholders.” (Interesting contrast to the U.S. Department of Justice’s “hands-off” attitude towards GM executives responsible for far more deaths.)
Miners’ safety is at the forefront of this trial, and interestingly, notes Bloomberg, “Massey Energy was one of a handful of mining and energy companies that tied its chief executive officer’s bonus to safety performance in 2010."
Blankenship had his bonus cut by about $150,000 [the year of the mine explosion] for failing to meet safety goals. He still got a $669,000 award because only 10.5 percent of his annual bonus was tied to safety.
“If 90 percent of your bonus can be achieved with full disregard to health and safety, that’s an underwhelming link,” Anne Simpson, senior portfolio manager and director of corporate governance at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest U.S. pension, said of typical executive-compensation practices. “Particularly in an industry where health and safety is absolutely the foundation of the company’s license to operate, its reputation, its operational risk and, of course, ultimately financial success.”
In fact, as Bloomberg shows, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation at all between this kind of compensation incentive and worker safety. The incentives were pretty weak at Massey and Blankenship even flunked those (although he got an eight-figure package when he “retired.”)
Let’s not spend too much time on that crook and instead keep the focus where it should be – on the workers who are injured or killed producing energy for the rest of us. Sadly, things don’t seem to be getting much better for them. For example, “A new report suggests oil-field work has never been more dangerous.” Last year was, according on one article, "one of the deadliest years for oil and gas workers."
Earlier this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said 142 oil and gas workers died in 2014, a 27 percent jump from 2013, when 112 workers died.
That 2014 number may even increase when the final federal breakdown is released in April, said Rebecca Reindel, senior safety and health specialist with AFL-CIO.
The labor group releases an annual report on worker safety and tracks fatalities and injuries in many employment categories. Reindel said she was jolted by the rise in oil and gas deaths.
"Oil and gas deaths are the highest we've seen them, possibly ever (recorded), definitely the highest going back to 2003," she said.
Actually, all of this is in line with the dismal state of worker safety generally. As FairWarning reported just a couple weeks ago,
More Americans died on the job last year, with the increase concentrated among older employees as well as self-employed and contract workers. Preliminary federal figures released today for 2014 put the workplace death total at 4,679, up 2 percent from the final count of 4,585 for 2013.
The new figures amount to the highest preliminary death total in six years, and the total will almost certainly grow by the time final numbers for 2014 are issued in the spring.
As for Blankenship himself, he seems bad or worse, as well. I mean, just as a person on Earth. Apparently, “[h]e released a self-made ‘documentary saying that the Upper Big Branch disaster was an ‘act of God’ caused when miners struck a hidden natural gas pocket and not the result of defective equipment and procedures, as investigators have found.” He faces 30 years in prison.