Friday, August 17, 2007

The Ultimate Confined-Space Entry

The Toronto Star has an article today on the most recent development in the case of the mine disaster in Utah. According to the article, "a cave-in Thursday killed three rescue workers and injured at least six others who were trying to tunnel through rubble to reach" the trapped miners; the search has been "suspended indefinitely." (Aside: I hope there's no one still alive down there, because they'd have to know by now that nobody's coming.)

In occupational health and safety terms, a "confined-space entry" means going into a space where there is only one available avenue of entrance and egress. In hazard situations, a confined-space entry is the most dangerous form of rescue to attempt, because (particularly with confined spaces like silos, rail cars, and mines) the air is often unbreathable, undetectably so. According to The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, 60% of fatalities in confined-space entry incidents kill the would-be rescuers. Protocols for handling confined-space entries usually stress testing the air quality before attempting a rescue (or, if time is absolutely critical, wearing a full breathing apparatus with self-contained air supply), taking steps to ensure a minimal risk of fire or explosion, and ensuring that the space is as structurally sound as possible before attempting an entry.

In other words, attempting a rescue in a seismically-unstable, 1500-foot-deep mine is an intrinsically extremely unsafe situation to begin with.

That's also assuming that the mine was in good, safe operating condition to begin with. (A "bump," which seems to be what happened here, is a cave-in or collapse caused by stresses on the rock, or even rock layers collapsing, and isn't necessarily the sign of an egregious operator safety violation, although it is almost certainly proof of a high-hazard mining environment, which is problematic in and of itself -- more later.) According to CBS News,
Government mine inspectors have issued 325 citations against the Utah mine since January 2004, according to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration online records. Of those, 116 were what the government considered "significant and substantial," meaning they are likely to cause injury.

The number of safety violations is not unusual, said J. Davitt McAteer, former head of the MSHA and now vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.

Comparatively, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review notes that Murray Energy, the owner of the Utah mine and other mines, had "'almost 500 safety violations a year,'" between 1996 and 2000 in two now-closed mines in western Pennsylvania, according to "Tim Baker, deputy administrator for occupation, health and safety with the United Mine Workers union."

It actually isn't unusual to see a large number of safety violations in a coal mine, unfortunately, especially where the enforcement mechanisms are compromised by politics, as looks to be the case here. According to the excellent (former) blog Confined Space (there's that term again), the head of the US Mine Safety and Health Administration, Richard Stickler, is a Bush appointee, and according to the CBS article, the chairman of Murray energy is "is a strong Republican backer." (For example, according to Open Secrets, in the 2000 US election, Murray Energy contributed $93,625, all of it to Republicans. $37, 075 of that was from individual donors, but I wasn't able to find any information on Stickler's personal donations.)

This has happened before. The most dramatic example in recent history happened in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. In the late 1980s, a constellation of Conservative Party politicians (the Canadian equivalent to the Republicans), political handshakes, coal mining, and unstable ground aligned. On September 11, 1991, the Westray mine opened, extracting coal from the highly-unstable and extremely gassy Foord seam (there had been two major mining disasters in the area in 1956 and 1958, and a history of cave-ins and explosions dating back to the 19th Century) opened, with much public fanfare and anticipation. Safety conditions in the mine were appalling from the get-go, the mine inspectors seemed blithely unconcerned about massive coal dust and gas problems (see the Westray Inquiry transcripts for details).

On May 9, 1992, in the early hours of the morning, the Westray mine exploded, killing 21 miners.

We can take some lessons here -- the intermingling of regulatory bodies, partisan politics, and money with dangerous occupations almost always have severe consequenses for the workers.

Also, a great deal has been written about media relations in the wake of the disaster. In the case of the Westray mine disaster, the mining company's communications strategy "did not satisfy legitimate media needs and that the company's lack of open, prompt, and accessible communication fed a media suspicion that officials had something to hide. On the other hand, journalists relied on human interest, made mistakes, and decontextualized their coverage of the story."1 A particularly illuminating look at the media coverage, which is especially relevant in the case of the Utah disaster, is John McMullan and Sherman Hinze's paper, "Westray: The Press, Ideology, and Corporate Crime," which appears as Chapter Nine of The Westray Chronicles: A Case Study In Corporate Crime.2.

In their paper, McMullan and Hinze state that "corporate lawbreaking is rarely described as criminality. It is usually underplayed by the media and reported as 'accidents,' 'tragedies,' or 'unforseen incidents.' With corporate malfeasance, there is a different condensation of organizational images at play." (183) This postulate is sharply apparent in the media coverage of the Utah incident, where the media is presenting allegations of flagrant safety violations as a "he-said/he-said" conflict, with the only quoted voices presenting the corporate malfeasance angle being pro-labour, and both the mining company spokespeople and the head of the MSHA talking about "accidents" and "tragedies" and dwelling on the emotional, human-interest story angle. Strikingly, Robert E. Murray, the chairman of Murray Energy Corp, maintains that the disaster occurred because of an earthquake (according to CBS), rather than the bump it appears to be, which abdicates responsibility a level further.

(The argument there being that one can avoid having one's workers trapped by bumps by not mining in unsafe, unstable ground, but earthquakes are basically unpredictable. An earthquake, ferchrissakes. Perhaps it's germane to mention here that, according to CBS, Murray is also a global-warming denialist, so he's used to blithely disregarding the scientific consensus.)

The pattern repeats itself yet again.

You could also say there's another confined-space entry going on here -- we're entering into a confined rhetorical space, bounded by money, politics, and the media. Are we going to see an honest examination of the proximate and root causes of this disaster, another terrible accident in an industry nobody seems to have much interest in even trying to make safe, or are we collectively going to perish in a polluted semantic environment?

1 Richards, Trudie. "The Westray Mine Explosion: An Examination of the Interaction Between the Mine Owner and the Media." Canadian Journal of Communication, v21 n3 1996

2 McCormick, Christopher. The Westray Chronicles: A Case Study in Corporate Crime. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1999.

McMullan, John and Hinze, Sherman. "Westray: The Press, Ideology, and Corporate Crime." The Westray Chronicles: A Case Study in Corporate Crime. Ed. Christopher McCormick. Halifax: Fernwood Publications, 1999.


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