A Short History of Blame: Regulation by Internal Responsibility

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth (and final) in a series of essays by Susan Dodd on Nova Scotia’s history of blaming coal mining accidents on the miners themselves — a history that finally changed in the wake of the Westray disaster. You can read the first and second and third essays here. This week’s focuses on the period from 1970 to the present day.

 

Reports of safety slackness in today’s Donkin mine started us out on this history of blaming in Nova Scotia coal mines. So, as we look at the two disasters that happened under regulation through “internal responsibility,” let’s keep in mind the question of whether accidents have anything to do with the mine managers (or, really, any manager) needing to “learn” how to run a reasonably safe operation.

And let us ask ourselves who will bear the blame if something terrible happens at Donkin.

Listen again to the voices of Westray; to the parents of a young man who died with his 25 co-workers on 9 May 1992:

Mother: …that was the week he was up in the shop and he was on the phone and the union rep was in…and [our son] was calling some of his friends to come in and sign union cards in the shop up there. And his father said, ‘Well, what’s Gerald [the underground manager and family friend] gonna think of that?’ He said, ‘Well, I’d rather have a cold shoulder than a cold casket.’

Father: Four days later he was dead. That’s what he got. A cold casket.

This young man got a “cold casket” because the people running that coal mine cared about profit, and maybe prestige, and there was no counterforce to make them care about the people who worked there.

 

The “internal responsibility” system that governs workplace safety now at least seems to address this need for continual counterbalance of powers within workplaces. Under internal responsibility, employers are required to have joint health and safety committees that include managers and employees. These committees are founded on three rights: the right to know about workplace hazards, to take part in health and safety decisions, and to refuse unusually dangerous work. Ideally, these committees gear the government regulations and company policies down to the level of worker practice so that the whole operation is self-consciously “safe.”

The first coal mine disaster of the post-Springhill era of “internal responsibility” in was the Glace Bay explosion in the Devco No. 26 that killed 12 men in 1979.

Devco No. 26 Colliery, Glace Bay, 1977. (Photo by Owen Fitzgerald via Beaton Institute https://beatoninstitute.com/)

Devco No. 26 Colliery, Glace Bay, 1977. (Photo by Owen Fitzgerald via the Beaton Institute)

The 1980 Report of the Commission of Inquiry in to the Explosion in the No. 26 Colliery Glace Bay reads like a simple factual report: it addresses mining insiders and regulators, not the general public and journalists. This suggests that the commission of inquiry did not see itself as needing to manage popular impressions.

Although Devco was a unionized crown corporation, the material and organizational causes of that disaster were remarkably similar to the causes of the disaster at Westray which took place more than a decade later, in a non-unionized privately-owned enterprise. As at Westray, the Devco disaster was sparked by a continuous miner at a coalface; that spark ignited accumulated gas and ambient coal dust. As at Westray, there was inadequate ventilation and a lack of overall mine planning. There was confusion in the chain of command, and a “lack” of safety culture overall.

In both, a central finding was that had the existing mining regulations been enforced the disaster might have been avoided. That is to say: the mine operators and the government inspectors knew how to make these workplaces reasonably safe but they failed to do so. This “finding” has been a mainstay of accident reports through the entire history that we’ve looked at these past weeks. This shows us that the fundamental cause of injury and death has never been a lack of knowhow — it has always been the absence of an effective counterbalance to the pursuit of profit.

Unfortunately, public pressure following the 1980 Glace Bay disaster was not strong enough to push for an even greater counterbalance than the joint committees. In part, this may be because people tended to think of coal mining as a relic from a lost past.

In the Glace Bay report, there was a strong sense that the deadly “lack” of safety culture at Devco was a loss of an earlier, craft culture of mining. After Westray, family members recalled that in their families, mining had “skipped a generation.” The young had missed the benefit of advice from elders about acceptable working conditions.

 

The report on the 1992 disaster in Pictou county has its central “finding” built into its subtitle: The Westray Story: a predictable path to disaster. Commenting on his mandate, Justice Peter Richard, the report’s author, asks whether the disaster was or was not preventable and finds:  “Of course it was” The deaths of those 26 men happened because there was no power to force the mine’s operators to curtail production for the sake of safety.

This report very clearly addresses a wide, non-specialist audience: it is easy to read, detailed and nicely formatted. It begins by laying to rest some of the deepest and most widespread anxieties about what had happened, who was to blame, and what should be done about it. It adamantly states that the 26 men died “instantly” in the explosion, thus putting to rest any fears that anyone had found refuge and been left waiting for rescue.

Westray coal mine, Plymouth, N.S.

Westray coal mine, Plymouth, N.S.

Before the report came out, the question of who was to blame for the Westray disaster was a burning one in Nova Scotia, especially for the relatives and friends of the men who had died. Many of the family members I interviewed blamed themselves for not paying attention to the men’s fears about Westray; they blamed themselves, too, for their expectations about money and for caring too much about having a job, any job. They feared the impending report would blame the dead men themselves and leave the mine operators and regulators untouched.

Certainly former Nova Scotia premier Donald Cameron blamed the miners — and the inspectors, stating In his testimony:

We don’t want to look at the truth. Especially if it makes a much better story if the reason we’re blaming other people is that the political people interfered and that’s why they [provincial mine inspectors] didn’t do their job. Who was it who changed that [methane] meter? Was it the inspector? Was it the mine regulator? Was it the politician who was pressing the reset buttons?

After testifying, Cameron actually ran from the building, laughing and taunting onlookers, saying: “What a bunch of fools.”

In this, Cameron harked back to the earliest days of accident reports: for him, the men’s tampering with the “sniffers”—the methanometers—in the overall drive to make production goals placed responsibility for the death and the destruction simply and solely in their hands. In 1997, before the report appeared, many people thought it would agree with Cameron, but it did not. Nor did it leave the blame entirely with the government’s failure to regulate.

Richard admits the men’s participation in unsafe mining practices, and acknowledges the failures of the NS government inspectors, but concludes that responsibility for putting workers’ lives ahead of the pursuit of profit lay with the mine’s owners and operators:

Westray management failed in this primary responsibility and the significance of that failure cannot be mitigated or diluted simply because others were derelict in their responsibility.

 

Over the past few weeks, I have tried to show that blaming workers for their own injuries and deaths was a given throughout coal mining history, and that depictions of coal miners in accident reports reveal wider cultural prejudices about people who hold dirty and dangerous jobs.

I’ve followed the reports from the earliest assignments of blame, where the low moral character of “miners” was presupposed, through an increasingly complex sense first, that mine culture was itself a source of danger; and then, as coal mining became less and less economically viable in Nova Scotia, that the hard, risky work was a social good in its own right; and finally, through the years of deregulation when governments fooled themselves into believing that corporations could “self-regulate,” right up to the slaughter of 26 men in Pictou County, in 1992. (Anyone who doubts the brutality of an unregulated workplace should read both Justice Richard’s report and Shaun Comish’s The Westray Tragedy: a miner’s story).

The Westray disaster convinced the public that the internal responsibility system needed to be bolstered by external regulation and the threat of hefty fines and jail terms. “Internal responsibility” or “self-regulation” actually depends on external monitoring and sanctions.

Men at work in the Lingan Mine, 16 April 1986. (Photo by Owen Fitzgerald via Beaton Institute https://beatoninstitute.com/)

Men at work in the Lingan Mine, 16 April 1986. (Photo by Owen Fitzgerald via the Beaton Institute)

After Westray, the United Steelworkers lobbied alongside the Westray Families Group, drawing on scholars and activists as they developed Bill C-45, “The Westray Bill.” This federal act makes corporations and their representatives liable so that criminal negligence in a worker’s injury carries the possibility of 10 years in jail, and it puts no limit on the size of fine that a corporation can be given.

Holding corporate agents responsible in a court of law is notoriously difficult, and as of November 2016, there had been only four successful prosecutions under Bill C-45. That said, at least Canadian law acknowledges that a “lack” of safety is a systemic tendency: where profit runs free, workers suffer and responsibility lies deep within the corporate culture.

The history of blaming in Nova Scotia coal mines is a history of a drive for profit at human expense. The similarities in reports on the “causes” of coal mine disasters across Nova Scotia history show that we should not be consoled by the fiction that corporations and governments “learn” from worker suffering.

Quite the opposite: the one lesson in all this death and destruction is that corporate activity—in coal mines, on oil rigs, in forests and cities and towns and airspace and waterways, in short, everywhere—must be watched, reported, and corrected.

A “safety culture” cannot be expected to emerge from unregulated business. The drive for profit is single-minded and destructive unless limited by an attentive public will expressed in regulation, criminal law and government investments in inspections and public prosecution. This is true of all of the ways that corporate profiting harms public goods: worker safety, environmental degredation, misuse of expense accounts, the general grifting that goes on around “job-creation” and economic kick-starts.

What the national director for the United Steelworkers said on the 25th anniversary of the Westray disaster holds true for the entire history of worker injury in Nova Scotia:

It’s an absolute travesty that not a single person paid for that crime, not a single person went to jail. What’s so horrific is that so many people got away with the negligence that transpired.

 

 

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), co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming)and author of The Halifax Explosion: the Apocalypse of Samuel Prince (a commentary on Catastrophe and Social Change), Underhill Books, forthcoming.

 

 

 

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