A Short History of Blame: Accident Reports from NS Mines

My undoubtedly unhealthy interest in formal reports on industrial accidents started the summer after my first year of university when my family’s copy of the report of the inquiry into the loss of the Ocean Ranger and its crew—including my oldest brother, Jim—arrived at our house.

(I’ve told this story too many times, so that the people who know me must weary when I retell it. That kind of repetition is normal with things like this…)

Incredibly enough, before I understood that my interest in such reports was rooted in my own traumatic response to my brother’s death, I spent a few years studying the aftermath of the Westray coal mine explosion.

Photographic postcard of a miner operating a long wall machine. (Source: Beaton Institute Digital Archives https://beatoninstitute.com/)

Photographic postcard of a miner operating a long wall machine. (Source: Beaton Institute Digital Archives)

 

In 1992, 26 men died when that “state of the art,” highly government-subsidized mine exploded. Those deaths were a shock to a province that had become complacent—confident in the belief that “progress” had taken care of the need for vigilance about workplace safety.

This was in the first wave of dismantling the supports and protections of the welfare state, in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The explosion was the outcome of a government belief in leaving the market to regulate itself. The inability of Canadian law to hold anyone responsible, despite evident mismanagement in that workplace, was also, in part, a result of deregulation because the Public Prosecution Service lacked the resources to mount a case against the mine’s managers and directors.

Nevertheless, Westray was presented by some—including Donald Cameron, who had been premier during the mine’s development—as a kind of freak event or the result of suicidal greed on the part of miners themselves.

"Princess" Colliery, Sydney Mines, NS, 1916. (Source: Beaton Institute Digital Archives Photographic postcard of a miner operating a long wall machine. (Source: Beaton Institute Digital Archives https://beatoninstitute.com/))

“Princess” Colliery, Sydney Mines, NS, 1916. (Source: Beaton Institute Digital Archives)

 

This got me thinking about the dreary history of exploitation and death in Nova Scotia’s coal mines. So I looked at every recorded coal mine disaster in the province’s history. The sudden deaths and destruction of disaster shock us into thinking about things we usually take for granted: when Westray exploded the “ordinary” relations between the people who profited from the mine and the people who worked (and died) in the mine suddenly drew public attention. Public inquiries and their reports are a crucial part of the complex processes that help us to get over the shock of the disaster and turn our attention away from the violence of exploitative businesses.

I’m trained to read like a literary critic, which means that I pay attention to the figures of speech that animate all writing. I look for things like metaphors, where one thing stands for another: Love is a rose. When we hear this, our understanding of each term is infused with characteristics of the other. Love is fleeting, delicate, prickly and a rose is inexplicably enchanting.

In reports on fatal accidents, miners were always blamed for their own deaths, either explicitly or implicitly, and metaphors helped create the overarching sense that particular people—flawed individuals—caused the carnage. This, of course, draws attention away from the pursuit of profit which puts people underground, digging up coal in methane-filled holes in the first place. Miners were always blamed…until Peter Richard’s Westray report, that is.

The Westray Story breaks from a very long practice in accident reports. I believe we have Donald Cameron’s testimony at the Westray inquiry to thank, in part, for Richard’s care in debunking the general presupposition that the men were responsible for their own deaths.

#26 Colliery millionth ton, 1967. (Source: Beaton Institute Digital Archives "Princess" Colliery, Sydney Mines, NS, 1916. (Source: Beaton Institute Digital Archives Photographic postcard of a miner operating a long wall machine. (Source: Beaton Institute Digital Archives https://beatoninstitute.com/)

No. 26 Colliery millionth ton, 1967. (Source: Beaton Institute Digital Archives)

 

In this series of short essays, I’ll revisit my chapter in Eric Tucker’s Working Disasters: the politics of recognition and response, in which I argued that the three waves of coal mine regulation identified by Tucker corresponded to three styles of reporting miners’ actions as the root cause of fatal accidents in Nova Scotian mines.

During the first wave of regulation, 1830-1879, governments simply tried to make the mining companies pay them some royalties. Second-wave regulation, from 1880 to 1969, saw governments playing catch-up with other kinds of social welfare programming, with weak direct regulation by the state. Finally, third-wave regulation—from 1970 on—has involved some form of joint regulation where the government, companies and employees (unions, where they’re organized) share responsibility for keeping a workplace safe.

In my next essays, I’ll explore the ways in which responsibility for coal mine disasters, in each wave of regulation, is attributed to the miners, and often to the miners alone. For now, let me end with a list of the disasters witnessed in this province and a consideration (my own) of their material causes:

In some ways, there is very little mystery about the material cause of coal mine disasters. The tunnels of a coal mine can collapse in a “fall” or even heave in a “bump.” Methane gas can creep out of the mine’s porous rock walls, accumulating in nooks and crannies undisturbed by flowing air where the gas then ignites or explodes. Gas explosions produce noxious gasses. Sometimes a gas explosion will shake coal dust into the air then ignite it in a second gunshot-like blast. Fires can start in coal dust and rage in the pit. (Dodd, in Tucker, Eric. Working Disasters. Routledge, 20161205. VitalBook file.)

As I hope we will see, the “real” cause of this history of carnage is political: when a public doesn’t care enough to make its governments regulate workplaces, the profit-drive of business breaks lives and communities.

first draeger crew formed in North America; the crew was formed at the No. 2 and No. 9 collieries, Glace Bay. Front row: John Joe MacNeil, Mr. Fergie, Norman MacKenzie. Middle row: Dan "Storey" MacDonald, Joe Campbell, Thomas Turner, James MacMahon, ?, Roddie "Heenan" MacDonald, Matt MacAdam, Dan MacGillivary, Gilbert Darroch, Alex T. MacNeil, Mick Steele. Back row: Harry Miller, Vannie Nicholson, John MacLean, John Robinson, Dan W. "Kink" McDonald, ?, ? Evan Prothero, ?. (Source: Beaton Institute Digital Archiveshttps://beatoninstitute.com/

First draeger crew formed in North America; the crew was formed at the No. 2 and No. 9 collieries, Glace Bay. Front row: John Joe MacNeil, Mr. Fergie, Norman MacKenzie. Middle row: Dan “Storey” MacDonald, Joe Campbell, Thomas Turner, James MacMahon, ?, Roddie “Heenan” MacDonald, Matt MacAdam, Dan MacGillivary, Gilbert Darroch, Alex T. MacNeil, Mick Steele. Back row: Harry Miller, Vannie Nicholson, John MacLean, John Robinson, Dan W. “Kink” McDonald, ?, ? Evan Prothero, ?. (Source: Beaton Institute Digital Archives)

 

Nova Scotia Mining Disasters, 1873-1992

DatePlaceNumber KilledCause
1873Drummond, Pictou Co60Explosion of gas
1878Sydney Mines, CB6Explosion of gas
1880Albion, Pictou Co6Flood
1880Albion, Pictou Co44Explosion
1883Vale, Pictou Co7Explosion
1885Vale, Pictou Co13Explosion
1891Springhill No. 1, Colchester125Explosion
1899Caledonia, CB10 Explosion
1905Reserve Mines, CB5Explosion
1905Dominion No. 2, CB4Explosion
1908Port Hood, CB10Explosion
1914Drummond, Pictou Co7 Boiler explosion
1917Dominion No. 12, CB65Explosion
1918Allan Mine, Pictou Co88Explosion
1924Allan Mine, Pictou Co4Explosion
1924Inverness No. 1, CB4Roof fall
1930Victoria, CB7 Explosion
1931Victoria, CB6Explosion
1932Maple Leaf No. 4, Colchester5Explosion
1935Allan Mine, Pictou Co7 Explosion
1938Princess, Glace Bay, CB21Cable break, rake
1943Dominion No. 2, CB4Men fell
1952McGregor, Pictou Co19Explosion
1952Dominion No. 20, CB7Explosion
1954Springhill No. 2, Colchester5Bump
1956Springhill No. 4, Colchester39Explosion
1958Springhill No 2, Colchester75Bump
1979Devco No. 26, CB12Explosion
1992Westray, Pictou Co.26Explosion

 

 

 

Susan Dodd

 

Susan Dodd is an associate professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil (Fernwood, 2012), and co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming).

 

 

 

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