Thursday, July 15, 2010

OPINION: Can We Talk About The Heartbreak of Workplace Deaths?

Can We Talk?
By Jack Fairweather

Two hundred thousand deaths. That is how many workplace deaths have occurred since the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created 32 years ago. When the heartbreak and economic impact of losing a husband, father, brother, son or daughter are added in, the resulting misery is obvious. However, according to a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) report of that number of fatalities OSHA referred only 151 to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. Of those, only eight resulted in convictions and prison sentences for company officials.
Forty names could be added to that number; the 29 miners who died in the Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia and the 11 oil workers who perished when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Louisiana coast causing the worst oil spill in this country’s history.
So, as mentioned above, out of 200,000 workplace deaths over 32 years, why have only 151 been investigated with only 8 prosecutions? Politics. Lobbyists and the political muscle of their corporate bosses. Government officials are reluctant to take on the kind of power global corporatists have today. Not many corporate criminal prosecutions result in any meaningful action or results. However, there is precedent for that kind of public interest prosecution … not to mention action which serves justice. Perhaps Attorney General Eric Holder had that in mind when he announced an investigation into health and safety practices on the BP leased oil rig. He should also pay serious attention to public calls for investigation into Massey Energy and it chief mouthpiece, CEO Don Blankenship.
In 1978, an Indiana grand jury indicted the Ford Motor Company after a tragic highway accident claimed the lives of three teenage girls. They were driving a Ford Pinto when another car hit them from behind. The Pinto burst into flames and the girls died. The grand jury indicted Ford Motor Company for reckless homicide as the manufacturer and seller of the Ford Pinto with an unsafe fuel tank. Although Ford was ultimately acquitted, the importance of the case - from a precedent setting standpoint - is that in cases involving human health and safety, corporations and their executives could be subject to federal investigation as well as being answerable in state courts.
According to “Corporate Crime Reporter” editor Russell Mokhiber, there is a push in West Virginia to prosecute Massey Energy for manslaughter. The prosecuting attorney for Raleigh County where the mine is located has said she would press such a charge “if there is evidence to support a homicide prosecution.”
Under the leadership of CEO Blankenship the Upper Big Branch mine had been cited 1,300 times for violations since 2005, 50 times in March. Many of those safety citations were for poor ventilation, the apparent cause of the deadly disaster. There is evidence, too, that Blankenship, in a 2005 memo to deep mine officials ordered that miners not be assigned to any job except “running coal” and that included any safety measures. Shortly after that a fire broke out at a Massey mine that killed two men and resulted in a 2.5 million dollar fine for the company. A federal investigation of possible bribery of safety inspectors is ongoing.
Why isn’t someone on trial right now in at least one of these disasters? Politics. Lobbyists and the political muscle of their global corporate bosses. Fear on the part of elected officials of losing important sources of largess, timidity on the part of those same officials.
The only thing that will overcome those kind of obstacles is action on the part of an outraged public. At a website called “” citizens can sign a petition to West Virginia authorities. Maybe, in the near future there will be a “” website,too.

1 comment:

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