By Bill Musgrave, Labor Notes

Profits over people: Call it the silent killer.

The investigation into the death of 29 miners at the Massey Upper Big Branch coal mine in April 2010 has revealed that the company maintained two sets of safety records. The practice kept hazardous conditions secret so Massey could keep digging for coal.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration reported last week that Massey's internal set of records contained known safety hazards. But the second "official" set, which is reviewed by mine safety inspectors -- as well as miners before every shift -- didn't mention many of these hazards.

MSHA announced that Massey Energy "could and should have prevented" the tragic explosion at its West Virginia mine.

In their presentation, MSHA officials accused the mine's management of a pattern of intimidation.

They said that foremen were pressured to meet production goals despite such hazards as insufficient air. A section foreman was fired for delaying production for about an hour to fix ventilation problems. Miners who worried about conditions at the mine would not complain due to fear of retribution, MSHA observed. Meanwhile, "examiners were pressured not to list hazards in the books."

According to Kevin Stricklin, the coal mine safety chief at the agency, one of the Upper Big Branch victims was told, "If you can't go up there to run coal, just bring your [lunch] bucket outside and go home."

Unions are under assault on many fronts, but this is an example of why all workers need a union. Many workers don't understand that protections they now enjoy in their non-union workplace were fought for and won by unions in the past.

If Massey had been unionized, the workers could have elected a Safety Committee of miners from that mine to conduct their own inspections. United Mine Workers miners bring their findings to management in safety meetings, without fear of reprisal.

A union would have given them a chance to enforce the "safety first" goal spelled out in the UMW contract.