Entry for February 25, 2006

I’m compiling this in a hurry and will add links Monday.  The editorial cartoon is from Nick Henderson, the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner, from when he was with the Louisville Courrier- Journal.  As of February 15, he is the editorial cartoonist for the Houston Chronicle.  For me this cartoon shows the tight relationship between MSHA and the the mine operators. 

Despite the pressure for the miner’ lives to buy some new safety enforcement, things may  get worse  if the Senate confirms Bush’s nominee  Richard Strickler, a former mine operator with a poor safety record while he worked for 30 odd years at  Bethlehem Steel.

  As Charleston Gazette reporter Kem Ward, Jr. noted on January 29 in his article “3 died at operations managed by Bush nominee” the Marion County WV native :

Between 1980 and 1992, at least 13 miners died at Bethlehem Steel’s coal operations, according to MSHA records.

The three fatalities at mines Stickler managed occurred in 1984, 1990 and 1992 at operations in Pennsylvania. In each case, Stickler was listed as manager, chief health and safety officer or general superintendent of the operation where the accident occurred, records show.

The worst of the accidents, in June 1990, killed mechanic Donald J. Smith and injured eight workers at the Cambria Slope Mine No. 33 near Ebensburg, Pa.

The accident occurred when a portal bus derailed while carrying workers from a longwall section to a mine shaft bottom.

In its official report on the accident, MSHA said that BethEnergy Mines Inc. had not maintained the portal bus suspension system in proper working order. MSHA investigators concluded that the shock system on the bus provided an average of only 48 percent of its designed rebound. One shock was not attached properly.

“The accident occurred because the suspension system on the vehicle had deteriorated which would have provided considerably less stability than originally designed,” the report said. “The speed of the portal bus … may have contributed to the accident.”

MSHA also found that a similar accident occurred involving the same portal bus about a month earlier.

Another accident on Stickler’s watch occurred in April 1984 at the Mine No. 51 Somerset Portal, according to MSHA records.

Joseph J. Letecki, a laborer, was killed. Letecki and three co-workers were pouring concrete from two cars. An underground locomotive hit one of the cars, and Letecki was crushed between the car and the mine wall.

In its report, MSHA concluded that the accident occurred because the locomotive operator did not give an audible warning and did not stop before reaching the work area.

Then, in May 1992, equipment operator Frank Kovash was killed at the Cambria Slope Preparation Plant.

Kovash was operating a dozer that fell through a raw coal pile. Coal engulfed the dozer, trapping him inside the cab for 10 hours.

In its report, MSHA concluded that “the cause of the accident was management’s failure to develop, implement and enforce a plan to prevent mobile equipment from being operated over coal reclaim feeders.”

Strickler had  his hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on January 31.  More on that tomorrow. .

According to Ward, a lot of stonewalling (my term, not his) has gone on since  Bush nominated Strickler in September. Strickler  has evaded the press, declining interviews.   The White House has not returned telephone calls about the  nomination.  The  Labor Department has refused to  comment.

 David G. Dye, (he who angered Arlen Specter by walking out on hearings early)  has  has been acting assistant secretary and and head of MSHA since Dave D. Lauriski resigned  after Bush’s  re-election.  Lauriski had been criticized cozying up to the coal companies after his own  career as an operator.  Shades of Brownie, Dye  had joined MSHA just six months before being named the agency’s acting chief.

 Stickler was named director of Pennsylvania’s underground mine-safety agency in  March of 1997, a position he held until he retired in July of 2003.  UMW officials opposed Stickler’s nomination to that post, complaining that  the Bethlehem mines Stickler operated had injury rates  double the national average.

In December, Cecil Roberts, International President of the United Mine Workers commented,

American’s coal miners don’t need a coal company executive in charge at MSHA.  We need a person who understands safety from the miner’s point of view, and is committed to making the health and safety of the miner the agency’s first priority once again.

Speaking of mine operators, yesterday I  found an interesting monthly  publication, Anvil Public Relations’  Crisis Counselor Newsletter, edited Noel L. Griese, who taught public relations at the Universities of Wisconsin and Georgia.

The February 15, 2005 issue has an article on ICG,”Case study: Crisis communication lessons of the Sago Mine disaster.  It repeats the misinformation or disinformation that ICG had just gained control of the mine, which has been researched and refuted by Ken Ward, Jr. and Mark Reutter.  I emailed my disappointment.  We’ll see if I get a reply.  The article  did comment

ICG surely was aware that the major problems with the mine could have been corrected if the company was willing to shut the mine down for a few months to take corrective action..

Another error was that the article attributed the press’s misreportage (that 12 miners were still alive) in part  to the “fact”  that West Virginia had no Bureau of Mines to provide a spokesperson. Actually there is an Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training  responsible for enforcement.  Actually, Ward and others have attributed the problems to MSHA, which in other other cases, has provide an information officer to serve as point person.  Here are the article’s  PR points:

1. When a crisis communication situation blows up, as it did in the Sago mine case, there’s usually a fatal flaw – an Achilles heel, the hubris that comes before downfall. What was the flaw in the Sago case? Failure to promptly correct misinformation. The tendency is human. Who wants to rain on a parade? Who wants to be the messenger transforming good news to bad? No one, of course, But in a crisis communication situation, where credibility is everything, prompt correction is essential. At the least, the Sago Mine communicators could have said immediately that they were treating the report that all 12 miners were alive with hope but needed corroboration.

2. …the importance of avoiding speculation in a crisis situation, no matter what the temptation, no matter what you hear.  Don’t say anything until you know it for a fact. If rumors arise, quash them, even if the rumors appear to be good news. Wait until the facts can be verified firsthand. Resist the temptation to put a positive face on things in response to the pleadings for more information from victims’ loved ones and relentless pressure from reporters. Don’t give in to speculation. Don’t announce anything until you are certain of the information,

3. Expect that the crisis will make related news far more important than it would normally be. …[The]  deaths after Sago normally would have been a news brief at best in most U.S dailies. Instead, each of the events became front-page news.   

4. A highly publicized crisis usually results in investigations and hearings by government organizations….

5. Investigations lead to legislation that may be corrective, may be punitive, or may be both….

6. Be careful when using euphemistic “code words” in a crisis situation. The Sago Mine communicators had told rescue team members to refer to the trapped miners as “items.” The problem with such code words is that they frequently end up in the hands of reporters and lawyers, and can make the communicators look bad indeed in retrospect.

7. When a preventable crisis occurs, the media will look for someone to blame

8. The media will be less likely to blame your organization if it has a reservoir of good will. If, on the other hand, it has a record of negligence, the media will likely be unmerciful….

9. Make sure the people who are speaking for the company are media trained, 

ICG chief executive Ben Hatfield, who did most of the talking for the mine owners, did a commendable job – right up until he failed to promptly correct the misinformation about 12 miners being alive when he knew almost immediately that they were dead. But the executive who really needed media training was the New York mine owner. When reporters got to him and pressed him about the meager $2 million that had been put together for survivors from company funds – with no contribution from his own personal fortune – public sentiment surely was swayed against the company. Once he was interviewed, there was little doubt there would be unsympathetic investigations of the company.

10 Even when a media circus is involved, the gaggle of reporters can get the story wrong.   Part of the reason for the media failure can be explained by the lateness of the hour, the exhaustion of everyone involved after two days of crisis and no defined chain of command for information. West Virginia has no Bureau of Mines to provide a spokesperson. [sic] There was no union presence, and the coal company had just taken over the mine a few weeks earlier. [sic] There was no control of information. Cell phones, which swiftly carried rumors to the families of the victims, were everywhere. But at the bottom of it, the reporters present took the governor’s uninformed “confirmation” of the rescue at face value. Using Gov. Manchin as the prime source of information for the rescue was a mistake. The media didn’t ask where Manchin got his information, but went right along with it, instead of playing Journalism 101 and finding another more reliable source to confirm the facts.

11.Although the public is becoming skeptical about public apologies…a mea culpa in this case was definietely in order. Ben Hatfield, chief executive of mine owner International Coal Group, delivered it on Jan. 4 on behalf of the owners for whom he works. “In the process of being cautious, we allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have,” said a choked-up Hatfield. Another ICG executive, vice president Gene Kitts, suggested that the misunderstanding resulted because the rescuers who reached the victims in the mine were wearing full-face oxygen masks that distorted the radio messages they sent back to their base. Hatfield said that overnight, after it appeared that the miners might not be alive after all, the company sent word that the initial report of 12 survivors might have been wrong. But he said the message never got to the family members promptly. He said the mine company did the best it could under extreme stress and exhaustion, and the owners “sincerely regret” that the families were left to believe for so long their loved ones were alive.

12. The media will check records to see if the crisis has set a new one. While you might not be involved in the current crisis, you could be implicated in the sidebar.



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