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Missing The Point On Safety

Recently, a subcommittee of the West Virginia state senate narrowly shot down an attempt to put teeth into what backers described as a weak miner whistleblower


Recently, a subcommittee of the West Virginia state senate narrowly shot down an attempt to put teeth into what backers described as a weak miner whistleblower statute. Supporters of the measure and mine safety advocates decried the decision. A lawmaker who cast a crucial dissenting vote argued that because miners hadn't come forward to support the bill, there must not be a call for it.

He had a point: supporters probably could have done a better job of demonstrating a need. Still, even the good senator should expect miners to be reluctant to openly support a measure designed to protect them from retaliation until such protections are put in place first.

Show me a mine where employees need whistleblower protection and I'll show you an operation that does not have a risk-reporting system. If miners are not encouraged to report risk, it is imperative to ask why. You might then learn that they are working in an environment that lacks a safety culture. Ask why enough times and your inquiry may lead you to conclude, for instance, that the mine is under the gun to produce a certain average tonnage per day or face penalties under its contract with a customer. Until managers appreciate that they have sacrificed safety on the altar of production and generate the gumption to change that, little safety progress is assured.


Several alternatives have been advanced to turn around resistant operators who have poor safety records. MSHA's current approach, especially in coal mines, is tough-minded enforcement. Whether the method will work has yet to be determined. However, it was tried during the 1990s with apparently limited effect. Maybe this time around, things will be different.

All too often, change comes written in the blood of miners. Just 2Ω years ago, two miners died in a belt fire that occurred at a coal mine in West Virginia. This happened after the mine ignored lessons that should have been learned from an almost identical belt fire three weeks earlier. The absence of a safety culture is apparent at this operation. Yet, since then, it has strung together 18 months without a lost-time accident.


A key to the turnaround is a new president who brought to the job a no-nonsense approach to safety. A push like this from the top is absolutely essential in launching a safety culture. Testifying in April before a Senate subcommittee, Carman Bianco of Behavioral Science Technology said, ìLeadership in an organization owns the culture. They create the culture that allows employees to feel like there is a value around safety, that the organization supports them.î

Bianco added that a culture of safety leads employees to believe they ìcan bring bad news to the front office. It's welcome. It's the only way we can manage risk.î

Australian professor Andrew Hopkins put the importance of risk reporting even more forcefully. An international expert on risk analysis, Hopkins said, ìSafety in organizations is vitally dependent on the willingness of employees to report things which might be going wrong.î That willingness, of course, turns on the employee's perception that such reporting will not be met with punishment.


Thus, rather than promote whistleblower protections, mine safety proponents might better serve their constituency by pushing states and MSHA to adopt approaches that point operators toward a safety culture. A key part of any such undertaking would be a requirement that operators prove to inspectors the existence of an effective employee hazard- reporting system within their operations.

When miners die in accidents, someone invariably complains that miners are still being used as canaries. ìMiners as canariesî is actually a great idea, but only when they remain alive, well and chirping freely about hazardous conditions.


James Sharpe holds a masters degree in environmental health sciences and is certified in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene. He has nearly 30 years experience in occupational and environmental health and safety. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.