The coverage so far of the Texas disaster is a far cry from the gold bar of workplace safety reporting, set by Walter Cronkite in 1968 following the Farmington, W.Va., mine explosion, in which 78 miners were killed. Then, Cronkite camped out for four days in a field in the middle of winter and provided in-depth stories on the mine explosion and its aftermath. Cronkite’s impassioned journalism is widely credited by workplace safety advocates as inspiring the passage of the first federal mine safety legislation: the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. Since the legislation was enacted, the number of coal mining accidents have plummeted from 311 in 1968 to just 19 in 2012.
Over the years, though, the media have not kept up Cronkite’s dogged reporting on workplace safety — or on workers at all. This decline in coverage has created an environment in which companies may feel as if they can get away with massive safety violations because they will face little scrutiny from the media and the public. For instance, in 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners. In the year leading up to the explosion, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the mine was cited 458 times for safety violations, with 50 of those violations being “for willful or gross negligence”— a rate nearly five times the national average for a single mine. But after the disaster, this information and the story of the mine disaster vanished from the national discourse, and new mine safety legislation failed to pass even a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
For those of us who covered the Upper Big Branch explosion and have continued to report its investigation three years later, many of us fear that once again knowledge of why a massive workplace disaster occurred — knowledge that could save lives in the future — will be kept out of the public discourse because the media simply won’t cover it. Has a single worker employed at the fertilizer plant been interviewed on cable TV? Where are the crowds of reporters trying to find the owner of the plant? And what about experts being rolled out to discuss what caused the explosion and how those responsible for this disaster will face justice?
After all, while it remains difficult to deduce the motives of the alleged Boston bombers, it is not so difficult to postulate what was behind the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co.’s plant: the failure to follow the science of workplace safety. The plant had 1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, yet hadn’t informed the Department of Homeland Security of the danger. Likewise, the fertilizer plant did not have sprinklers, shut-off valves, fire alarms or legally required blast walls, all of which could have prevented the catastrophic damage done. And there was little chance that regulators would learn about the problems without the company reporting them: Not only had the Occupational Safety and Health Administration not inspected the plant since 1985 but also, because of underfunding, OSHA can inspect plants like the one in West on average only once every 129 years.