Academic journal article Human Organization

Risky Business: Neoliberalism and Workplace Safety in Wyoming Coal Mines

Academic journal article Human Organization

Risky Business: Neoliberalism and Workplace Safety in Wyoming Coal Mines

Article excerpt

This article traces how miners in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, a region that currently produces a majority of the coal mined in the United States, were able to constrain and counter the individualization of workplace risk, a troubling and key technology of neoliberal governance. Onsite research at four surface mines suggests that miners affirm the crew's collective responsibility for mitigating risk by reframing official safety programs in terms of kinship, specifically the ties of relatedness crew members create with each other over the course of everyday work practices. Management eventually adopted this framing as well in order to distance themselves from an industry blighted by conflict, encourage employees to stay in the midst of a labor shortage, and maintain enviable safety records. The article concludes by evaluating the performance of the new safety programs and pointing to the larger lessons to be learned from this fieldsite about neoliberalism, workplace safety and risk.

Key words: work, safety, mining, gender, kinship, neoliberalism


In recent years, three appalling tragedies have brought the coal industry's safety practices under sharp criticism in public debate. Twenty-nine miners perished in the April 2010 explosion at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch Mine, making it the country's deadliest mine accident in nearly 40 years.1 Six miners and three rescue workers lost their lives in the August 2007 collapse of Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine. All but one of the 13 miners trapped underground following a January 2006 explosion in West Virginia's Sago Mine lost their lives. These disasters have called into question the effectiveness of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in regulating the coal industry.

Particularly disturbing to many critics were the stacks of safety violations that the mine operators had accumulated without being shut down. Serious and substantial violations are those MSHA considers likely to cause an accident that could seriously injure or kill a miner. The serious and substantial violations at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch were 19 times the national rate in 2009, prompting MSHA to label the company as one with a "history of violations" that the agency was "watching closely" (Cooper et al. 2010: Al). The agency was not able to shut down the mine, however, because Massey also routinely contested those violations; of the nearly $900,000 in violations assessed against the mine in 2009, only $168,000 were paid (Cooper et al. 2010). Similar problems plagued Sago, where the International Coal Group had accumulated 270 safety violations in the two years leading up to the accident, including nine citations alone for lacking an adequate mine ventilation plan that should have prevented dangerous methane gas buildups. In the three months before the accident, MSHA investigations resulted in 46 citations, 1 8 of which were classified as serious and substantial. Penalties over the two years of fines totaled a mere $24,000, leading many to speculate that it was more profitable for the company to pay them than to invest in safe work environments (e.g., Mogensen 2006:484).2

News coverage of the disasters questioned MSHA officials' ability to take authoritative stances against corporate officials. Massey's Don Blakenship, often portrayed by critics as a "Luciferian overlord of fossil fuel production" (Zeller 2010: BUl), appeared unrepentant when discussing the company's safety performance. His stated commitments to safety rang hollow in light of moving testimonies from miners who were afraid for their lives since the company's focus on production made them unable to make basic precautions. Though Blakenship denied their accusations, a damning internal memo from 2005 surfaced and provided evidence of him instructing superintendents to ignore projects designed to increase safety in order to run more coal.

Similar concerns emerged from coverage of the Crandall Canyon disaster just three years earlier. …

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