Priorities, Ethics & The Dangers of Coal Mines

Here’s an AP story, reported in the Boston Globe: Mine deaths rise with coal price: Worker fatigue from overtime cited as factor

With coal prices at record highs, mining companies have been pushing to increase production, adding overnight and weekend shifts and generating more overtime hours for miners who have some of the most physically grueling jobs in the country.

Industry groups and mine regulatory agencies are wondering if fatigue might be a factor in the sharp increase in coal-mining deaths this year. So far this year, 33 coal miners have been killed on the job in the United States, including 12 in January at the Sago mine in West Virginia and five on May 20 at Kentucky Darby No. 1. That was an increase from 22 coal miners killed for all of 2005, according the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

This is interesting enough, on its own, and would make a great workplace health & safety case-study for use in a business ethics class. But wait, it gets better. Next comes a bit about the problems posed by having to balance multiple, competing objectives:

Coal-mine operators have been pressing miners to keep up the pace. In a memo to employees last fall, Massey Energy’s chief executive officer, Don Blankenship, raised controversy by saying production is the top priority.

“If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers, or anyone else to do anything other than run coal…you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” Blankenship wrote.

A week later, Blankenship sent employees another memo, saying safety is the top priority.

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