Memorial Day in the United States honors those we have lost, who have fought for their country – and whether they died in battle or decades later – we honor their service. I think of the flag moving in the breeze beside my dad’s grave, and those of millions of other men and women.
But, especially this year, Memorial Day has for me a broader definition of honoring the dead. It is a global sense of loss.
It has been a year of horrific natural disasters – floods, wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis all over the world. In March, just two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, more than 10,000 people were reported dead and nearly 17,500 were missing.
We have no idea what the long-term fall out will be from damage done to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and the impact on people, wild life, and agriculture from exposure to radiation and radioactivity in the water and soil. In spite of toxic levels of radiation, at least 50 workers risked their own future at the height of the crisis by entering the plant to keep cooling water going into the damaged reactors to avert a meltdown. Their efforts were as heroic as what occurs on a battle field.
It took angry parents, so concerned about their children’s welfare, in a situation that should have spoken for itself, to push the government to increase the acceptable standards of radiation exposure which thereby increased protection for children in schools within proximity of the nuclear plant. The government then took responsibility for removing contaminated top soil at the affected playgrounds and schoolyards.
And in Joplin, Missouri, just a week after the massive tornado destroyed the town, the death toll keeps rising; about 140 people are confirmed dead, with another 100 still missing. Included in those lost are those who sacrificed their lives rescuing others in what may be the worst tornado in U.S. history.
Then there are disasters deemed preventable, made by man. Earlier this month the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel in West Virginia issued a report on the April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine which killed 29 – the worst U.S. mining disaster in decades. The report, subtitled “a failure of basic coal mine safety practices,” blamed the bulk of the tragedy on Massey’s failure to protect its workers. In the year since the blast, the report indicated that Massey hasn’t really improved safety practices.
The report also placed blame on the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for failure to use all the tools at its disposal and the West VA Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training for failing in its role as watchdog enforcing state laws.
In talking about the culture of the company the report said: “The history of inadequate commitment to safety coupled with a window dressing safety program and a practice of spinning information to Massey’s advantage works against the public statement put forth by the company that the April 5, 2010 explosion was a tragedy that could not have been anticipated or prevented.”
Eighteen current and former Massey executives, including then CEO Don Blankenship, refused to participate in the investigation, taking the Fifth Amendment. That is a powerful commentary on culture right there.
The leadership legacy of Blankenship, who retired in December 2010, raises many questions including the risk the company took on, at the expense of its workers, in pursuit of aggressive production goals.
While civil and criminal investigations of Massey continue, Alpha Natural Resources announced this year an agreement to buy Massey with plans to keep on many Massey executives; Blankenship is expected to be a consultant.
Memorial Day: honoring heroes of war and remembering others we have lost.
And when the deaths are determined to have been preventable as with the 29 miners, aged 20 to 61, what will we let the legacy be of human error? What will we require be changed in policies and enforcement for a company, an industry, and regulators?
Gael O’Brien May 30, 2011
Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine