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Criminal Sentence for Mine CEO Has Some Worker Safety Advocates Angry

A CEO of Massey Coal, as well as several managers and executives, were charged by federal prosecutors with various crimes related to the death of 29 miners. Safety News Alert reported the CEO was sentenced in April. The prosecution and sentencing were both big deals because the CEO of this coal company is the most prominent CEO ever to be charged in the death of miners who worked for him. handcuffs-1469317

Worker safety advocates had initially hoped the prosecution of the CEO would serve as a strong deterrent to employers who fail to take reasonable steps to secure the safety of miners who work in a dangerous profession. Massey Coal has a very long history of safety violations, but had continued to blatantly violate safety regulations, even with the past citations and fines.

The problem is, inspections by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are few and far between and penalties are often too low to prompt companies to take action to better protect workers. With OSHA and safety violations not serving to force change, the hope was that a criminal prosecution would send a strong message - especially because it is very unusual for a CEO or executive to be charged with criminal acts due to workplace safety problems.

Will the CEO's Sentence Serve as a Strong Deterrent

Federal prosecutors brought the CEO up on multiple charges after 29 mine workers were killed. Their deaths occurred due to a buildup of coal dust and flammable methane and other gases.  Unfortunately, the buildup happened because corners were cut and important safety regulations had been ignored. The CEO micro-managed the company, demanding progress reports on mining activities every half hour. He had pressured workers below him to improve productivity, often at the expense of taking basic safety steps necessary to prevent just the type of explosion which occurred.

The CEO was found guilty of only one charge related to a conspiracy to violate mining safety regulations.  He was not found guilty of other charges related to securities fraud and making false claims. Had the CEO been convicted on all of the charges - including the financial fraud crimes - he could have faced up to 30 years in prison. Instead, he was found guilty only of this one offense, which had a maximum penalty of one year imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.

He was given the maximum sentence, but many safety advocates believe the punishment is not enough for the direct role his actions played in taking 29 lives. To be a deterrent, criminal prosecutions must carry the threat of serious punishment, especially given how rare it is for CEOs to be prosecuted in the first place.

Even with the lenient sentence, the CEO said that while he feels sorrow for the families, he does not believe he committed a crime. He intends to appeal the sentencing, and hopes he can get it overturned so he will only face a fine and probation.

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