The Price Tag on Safety

Back in 1993, on the eve of a union contract negotiation, I had a discussion with a young management staffer at the Kimberly-Clark Corporation’s Fullerton, California, paper mill.  We were talking about the mill’s safety record.  I still recall his comment. “Safety is no different from payroll, raw materials, equipment, utilities, or taxes,” he said.  “It’s all overhead.”

While this fellow doubtless thought he was passing on fairly dramatic information, his observation on industrial safety was something that employees working under a union contract already knew:  A safe work environment comes with a price tag.  And that price tag can be expensive.

Given that 25 miners died in the Massey Energy Company’s Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion, in Raleigh County, West Virginia, on April 5 (with four others still unaccounted for), this may not be the appropriate time to discuss labor ideology or bring up that whole slate of what-ifs, and what-might-have-beens.  The tragedy is too fresh for such a discussion.

But appropriate or not, it’s important we acknowledge a critical fact and that we do it now—that we do it before the corporate spinmeisters engage in their legerdemain, and the media moves on to the Next Big Thing.  We need to acknowledge that union facilities have better safety records than non-union facilities.  This isn’t subject to debate or interpretation; it’s a stone cold fact.  And Massey Energy is a defiantly non-union company.

By now everyone knows that Massey has a history of numerous safety violations.  Its Aracoma mine continues to rack up the safety violations, having been hit with more than 300 citations in the last year.  Its Upper Big Branch, where the 25 men died, was cited for 515 violations in 2009.  Astonishingly, since 1995, the mine has had 3007 violations, and since 2005, there have been 1342 citations. Upper Big Branch had 53 violations in the month of March alone.

Gary Hardesty, an AWPPW safety expert, has noted that, statistically, the greater the number of “minor” safety infractions a company is cited for, the greater the odds that it will experience a severe accident.  “It’s an actuarial reality,” Hardesty said.  “The more violations, reportables and near misses, the greater the chances of a fatality.”  The same dynamic applies to motorists:  Drivers with a history of minor collisions are, statistically, more likely to be involved in a serious accident than drivers with no accidents.

According to federal records, one of the violations Massey was cited for was “allowing combustible coal dust to accumulate.”  For a company dedicated to mining coal, removing accumulated dust requires one of two solutions: buying more equipment (e.g., water mists) and/or hiring more people to take on that specific task, or assigning existing miners to do it.

But if you’re trying to save money, you don’t want to invest in new equipment, and if you’re committed to keeping the headcount down, you’re not going to add clean-up personnel.  And if you’re looking to run coal, you’re not going to slow down the operation by taking productive coal miners away their jobs.  Massey Energy is a publicly traded company, whose loyalty is to its shareholders.  As the man said, safety has a price tag.

Even though Massey has been fined a relatively small amount (and has paid barely one-sixth of those fines, having appealed the others), the problem with federal regulatory and watchdog agencies isn’t that they don’t have the “teeth” to get the job done.  Clearly, that’s part of it, but not all of it.  Rather, the bigger problem is that management simply doesn’t buy into it.  They lack a “good faith” commitment to the safety process.  In a word, they don’t believe in it.  If they did, they wouldn’t be so eager to sidestep it.

Instead of regarding a safety citation as a symptom, a red flag, an opportunity to make the facility safer, American businesses tend to view that whole “workplace safety” arena the way Wall Street views banking and SEC investigations—as an elaborate cat-and-mouse game.

Here’s the scenario:  Evil federal bureaucrats come barging into private business establishments looking for safety violations, and heroic managers, attempting to keep people employed and the economy on an even keel, try to keep these bureaucrats from “regulating” them right out of existence.  Part of it is the profit motive rearing its head, and part of it is the manifestation of Reaganesque contempt for the federal government.

Safety citations should be analogous to a visit to a doctor for a check-up.  When the doctor finds something wrong, you get it taken care of.  But for many of America’s industries (and mining is clearly one of them) it’s not a question of finding out what’s wrong and fixing it, but rather of avoiding detection.

But why on earth would a manufacturing or mining company seek to avoid something as critical as workplace safety?  Because it’s expensive.  As the man said, safety is overhead.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at



David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at