Researchers Criticize Westray Mine Safety

Network of financial and political forces
Managers valued production results over safety rules
Bank of Nova Scotia linked financing to production

Researchers Criticize Westray Mine Safety

Better Grasp of Organizational Culture Needed

By Amanda Leslie-Spinks

This research article appeared in
The Gazette
The University of Calgary's faculty and staff weekly newspaper

This article was found in December 1997 on the Internet, at

In February 2002 it was still available online, at

When the death knells of Chernobyl and Bhopal echoed around the world, research on the catastrophic potential of complex technologies went into high gear. Recent investigation into the Westray mining disaster, which claimed 26 lives on May 9, 1992, suggests that models developed for high-risk systems like nuclear and chemical plants do not apply to "earthbound" industries like coal mining and logging. Pushkala Prasad and Timothy Hynes of the Faculty of Management believe that improving safety in these industries may depend on a better grasp of organizational culture.

People think preventing mining accidents is common sense compared to controlling nuclear or chemical disasters, says Prasad. She points out that the job of gouging and moving coal is much like it was in the early 18th century. Methanometers have replaced canaries as early detection systems, but the linear process of extraction and the risks of methane gas and flammable coal dust haven't changed. Why then is the fatality rate for mine workers still five times the national average for workers?

Evidence from Westray shows a long-standing pattern of safety violations: combustion engines refueled with the motors running, a "volunteer" system for applying limestone to reduce coal dust concentrations, cigarette butts and oily rags littering the mine floor.

"We found at Westray a pattern of behaviour that sociologists call mock bureaucracy — a situation in which workers fail to follow regulations and the managers fail to enforce compliance," says Hynes, whose investigation of Westray is part of his doctoral research. Rules are ignored because they are perceived as "bureaucratic paraphernalia" without legitimacy in themselves. What is remarkable at Westray though, he says, is that rules tied to workers survival, which should be deeply meaningful, were ignored.

Hynes examined management behaviour and found a network of financial and political forces pushing managers to value production results over safety rules. For instance, an agreement with the Bank of Nova Scotia linked financing to production data. Government funding also depended on a commitment to the Nova Scotia Power Corporation to produce a certain number of tons of coal per year.

Miners had their own reasons for participating in unsafe working procedures. One worker left his job to avoid dangerous conditions, and suffered penalties in his UIC claim. In job-strapped Nova Scotia, brutal labour market discipline could have stopped miners from taking action.

But why would miners make matters worse by smoking in areas where explosions were a constant and predictable danger? Hynes and Prashad point to the culture of danger that has always surrounded mining. Memorials found in many mining towns depict the miner as a tragic hero and probably incline the workers to accept higher risks as part of their occupational identity. Hynes and Prasad conclude that while managers and miners broke safety rules for different reasons, they ended up supporting each other in making Westray a dangerous place.

The researchers argue that the traditional response to this kind of disaster hearings and commissions of inquiry will fail to address the factors behind safety abuses, and may go a long way towards making them invisible. The criminal and regulatory proceedings unfolding slowly around Westray exclude evidence about financial, political and cultural antecedents of the fatal spark. Prasad points to rules of admissibility of evidence that filter out information on patterns of pressure that affected the actors in the Westray case.

Hynes intends to apply his findings from Westray to other major underground disasters in Canada: a potash mine in New Brunswick, another coal mine and the Springhill disaster in Nova Scotia, which inspired a massive output of safety regulations in Canada in the 1970s.

If he finds the same patterns of influence at work in all these cases, his work will raise serious questions about how safety rules affect this most-dangerous of all occupations. The regulatory approach may be diverting attention from the real problem: non-compliance. In fact, the ultra-rational, technocratic response of meeting a safety problem with a new rule might have to be discarded. The alternative is imaginative approaches that make connections between industrial safety and the workings of external but deeply implicated institutions like banking and government.

Go To:   Westray Scrapbook Fifty clippings about the Westray coal mine disaster
Go to:   Main Westray Coal Mine Disaster page
Go to:   Westray Public Inquiry online transcript of testimony
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