U.S. Agencies Under Fire for Safety Awards to Firms Involved in Major Disasters

Every year, federal regulatory agencies praise companies for their supposedly stellar safety records, handing out shiny trophies and plaques. Recent oil rig and coal mine disasters, however, show the award system isn’t all its cracked up to be, The Washington Post reports.

According to worker safety advocates, the commendations illustrate the dangers of federal agencies becoming chummy with the industries they regulate.

Both Massey Energy Co., owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia where 29 men perished in an April blast, and Transocean,  owner of the oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 and spewing about 200 million gallons of oil, have been honored with safety awards from the federal government.

In the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the Mine Safety and Health Administration wrote an 11-page report detailing Massey’s “troublesome” safety record. But only six months earlier, the agency and the National Mining Association bestowed on the company three “Sentinels of Safety” awards.

Last week, the Department of Labor, of which MSHA is a part, informed the agency that the safety data that were the basis for Massey’s awards were inaccurate. The company had underreported injury data by about 37 percent.

Experts say that’s part of the problem — safety awards are based on self-reported numbers.

“These numbers are easily manipulated. Workers are under enormous pressure to not report when they are hurt,” Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO, told The Post. “One of the problems is hazardous conditions are not identified and reported to authorities.”

Massey said the inaccurate numbers stemmed from “reporting errors” that have been corrected. MSHA officials would not comment on the awards.

Safety advocates also say they are puzzled by awards to Transocean from the U.S. Minerals Management Service–recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. In 2009, the minerals service honored Transocean with a Safety Award for Excellence (SAFE) for its work in the Gulf of Mexico, site of the BP oil well blast that sank Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon rig.

At the time of the disaster,  BP, which was leasing the rig, was in line for a 2010 SAFE award. Bureau officials declined comment.

Experts said the recent string of disasters should convince agencies to reexamine the award system.

Related Post:

Targeting Bogus Injury Records, OSHA Takes Heat from All Sides

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