Lessons to Learn from the Upper Big Branch Mine and the Deep Water Horizon

Remember Don Blinkenship? He was the CEO of Massey Energy Company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that suffered the explosion on April 5th, 2010 that killed 29 miners and injured several others.

 As battalions of news reporters assembled outside of his office and bombarded him daily with questions about the safety of his mines, Blinkenship resolutely maintained that he had done more to advance mining safety than the mining industry as a whole had done in the last decade. Yet, according to a July 18, 2010, editorial in The New York Times, there was evidence that the accident may have been caused when a company electrician by-passed a methane detector alarm that kept interrupting the flow of coal. Apparently the electrician was ordered to by-pass the detector by a middle- management supervisor.

 According to Mr. Blinkenship he spent a lot of money and effort to advance safety in his mines, but all of his efforts may have been undone by subordinates who at least “perceived” that upper-management valued production numbers more than safety. As a consequence, Mr. Blinkenship, once known as the King of Coal, ended up selling his company, narrowly escaping criminal prosecution, and may still be potentially liable for a number of civil suits, all because of a faulty perception.

 News about the explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine was quickly squelched by the explosion on the Deep Water Horizon oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20th, 2010.  That explosion claimed the lives of 11 workers and injured 17 others, and may have initiated the worst oil spill in the history of the United States. The lives of the dead and injured roughnecks are only over shadowed by the horrific consequences caused by the vampiresque actions of British Petroleum.

 The event quickly cast BP’s CEO Tony Hayward in a villainous spotlight for public attention. Unsure of what had been done as far as safety training, what to do or what to say, he committed one public relations blunder after another while his employees quickly grabbed their 10 minutes of fame by pointing out a lack of safety and maintenance procedures to newspapers and programs like 60 Minutes. According to one electrician on the Deep Water Horizon, a supervisor ordered the continuation of work even while he was handed parts of a critical gasket that had been destroyed during the drilling operation.

 There were reports that Hayward and BP may, indeed, not have been technically responsible for the lack of safety training in that they leased the rig from Transocean, Inc, and it was Transocean’s rig, people, systems, and safety processes.  Nevertheless, Hayward’s and BP’s legacy may be irreparably damaged by the simple oversight of not ensuring that their subcontractors were adequately trained.

 Is there a common problem here? Yes, and it is a problem that affects most businesses in the industrialized world. That problem is the failure of top management to adequately communicate the safety message to middle managers who are tasked with the duel responsibilities of optimizing productivity and maintaining safety.

 Is there a solution? Again, yes, and the solution is to be found in effective communication of safety policies and verifiable training. Nothing effectively communicates a devotion to safety as well as training. Training is both time consuming and expensive, but a dedication to safety training is always clear evidence that a company is willing to put money where their mouth is. Those who do not train in regulatory compliance have no right to a defense of happenstance. Risk is sometimes essential to profitable businesses, but any business engaged in risk of any level has a moral obligation to their employees — and the public — to develop and strictly adhere to written policies and procedures, and to train, train, and train some more!

 The finger pointing starts immediately whenever there is an injury or catastrophic event at any business facility. The question always arises as to who is responsible; however, all of us, executives, managers, mid-level managers and employees must share some part of the responsibility for our actions or lack of action. The real question is: Who is going to be held accountable? And, as I am sure that Blinkenship and Hayward would attest, that person is going to be the person who sits at the helm of the business. The lesson to learn: Provide verifiable employee safety training in your workplace; develop and adhere to written policies and procedures; and communicate your company’s safety message clearly, consistently, and often.

 The image you save may be your own!

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