Former Massey miner Jeffrey Harris tells Congress: ‘People shouldn’t have to work like that’

April 27, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.


My name is Jeffrey Harris. I am a coal miner from Beckley, West Virginia. I have over 30 years of experience as an underground coal miner. For the last four years I have worked at the Harris #1 Mine, which is owned and operated by the Patriot Coal Company. I am a roof bolter, which means my job is to pin the underground roof of the mine to keep it safe. I also have experience doing most of the underground jobs including running equipment, working on the belts, and construction.


Before my current job, I worked for Massey. I worked at the Keppler Mine in Pineville, West Virginia and my job was roof bolter there, too. I worked for Massey for about 6 months in the first half of 2006. Even though I was hired to work at the Keppler Mine, I spent a little time at the Upper Big Branch, and some other Massey operations. When MSHA shut down the Keppler mine because of violations, the Company would send us to other mines to work.


In the end, I quit my job with Massey because I couldn’t take the poor conditions in the mine. I was scared and didn’t feel comfortable working there. I am here to tell you about some of the things I know from my time working at Massey mines; things that aren’t right and which shouldn’t be allowed to continue. I am here because I am concerned that other miners are working in conditions I know aren’t safe.


Sometimes, if we had heard that there was too much gas, we’d be told the problem was taken care of and not to worry. We might not believe them that the problem was fixed, but we had a job to do and we worked. Then when an inspector came by, he would find excess gas and shut us down. This showed us that the Company couldn’t be trusted.


You might wonder why we would work if we thought it was dangerous. The answer is simple: either you worked or you quit. If you complained, you’d be singled out and get fired. Employees were scared, but like me they have to feed their family. Jobs are scarce, and good paying coal mining jobs are hard to come by.


One of the problems at Upper Big Branch Mine was with the air. When we were outside they might talk about safety but as soon as you went underground it was a different story. When we got to a section to mine coal, they’d tear down the ventilation curtain. The air was so thick you could hardly see in front of you. When an MSHA inspector came to the section, we’d hang the curtain, but as soon as the inspector left, the curtain came down again. Some people would tell the inspectors about these kinds of ventilation changes that were made for the inspectors benefit, but the inspectors told us “we need to catch it,” and that didn’t happen very often.


Mine Explosion Congress

At the Massey mines, we’d also shut down equipment when the inspectors were at the mine so they couldn’t take readings while we were mining. We’d have to say the machine was “down.” But as soon as the inspector left, we’d kick it right back into service. This was a common practice. I could tell the inspectors would get frustrated, but they had a lot of ground to cover and couldn’t hang around waiting.


In checking for gas, we would take a number of gas monitors to check for gas levels, but we would only report the lowest. If other readings were too high, they wouldn’t get reported at all.


The Massey mines were always understaffed, which also meant there weren’t people available to take all the safety readings, or take care of the ventilation like it should be done. Our regular schedule was a 12-hour day with 4 hours mandatory overtime. We had to wait for our replacement to take over before we could leave our equipment to go home. If the replacement didn’t come, we’d have to stay and keep on working even beyond the 16 hours.


Reports about Massey’s lost time accidents are also misleading. I was lucky and never got hurt while I worked for Massey, but I know plenty of other guys who did get injured. If you got hurt, you were told not to fill out the lost time accident paperwork. The Company would just pay guys to sit in the bathhouse or to stay home if they got hurt – anything but fill out the paperwork.


I could say even more but this gives you an idea of some of the problems. If an operator wants to, it’s pretty easy to cut corners on safety. That’s exactly what I saw at the Massey mines where I worked. People shouldn’t have to work like that. Nobody should have to fear for their life just to earn a paycheck.


Thank you for giving me this chance to talk about mine safety. I would be happy to answer your questions.

13 Responses to “Former Massey miner Jeffrey Harris tells Congress: ‘People shouldn’t have to work like that’”

  1. Joseph Rice says:

    Why doesn’t MSHA believe what these miners say about the violations?

  2. clay ton says:

    For those who never visited WV and the Appalachian region you might find the isolation of the coal hamlets hard to understand. If coal mining was the major industry in Manhattan, NY, rest assured the men would be getting paid correctly, and mining conditions would reflect the century we are living in. But tucked away in the hills far from the centers of American commerce the local inhabitants carry the imbalanced human burden of wrecked lives and the sadness of loss while providing millions of people the fuel ‘required’ for their modern conveniences. Coal from the eastern states keeps the lights on for almost 100 million people; without coal their lights would dim, lifestyles evaporate.

    There might be other jobs as hard as coal mining, but I don’t think there is anything harder. The daily reminders of the price the living pay for a career in coal mining is only visible in the communities, hospitals and clinics of those regions; trust me, the rest of the country does not have a clue. Long ago in these isolated areas the people of the coal communities became accustomed to the horrors, the perils of working in a coal mine; every family has it’s own tragedy. People of the region have accepted the human costs of mining as their ‘cross to bear’, the price ‘they’ must pay for just living. Oblivious, the rest of the country is quite pleased if you are satisfied carrying their load.

    The predicament of the mining communities reminds me of the situation the African slaves had in the USA prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. While the nation was dependent on the products of the slaves labor, the general public was unaware (no TV, no radio, no internet) of the situation on the ground for those who toiled. A small minority fought for the human rights of people they would never meet, a great war was fought to free an enslaved group and 150 years later the nation is still dealing with the effects of slavery.

    Coal mining is America’s industrial stepchild; it’s like a spin on Cinderella. Mine owners pay politicians to ‘get out of their way’, ineffective, short handed enforcement agencies often made powerless by devious mining company lawyers, a public that is largely unaware of the plight of the unfair treatment of citizens and all the while the coal is irreplaceable. Maybe in 50 years coal will not make 50% of the nations electricity, but it will be used to make steel and countless other things. Mining is not going to stop; mining techniques need to improve.

    The explosion at UBB on 4/5/10, the miner killed at the ICG Pocahontas mine last week, the daily injuries all stories that keep repeating. Looking back at old stories from the Charleston Gazette we see that only the names and places have changed, the same forces of destruction our fore bearers endured are still with us. Left unresolved, there is not a single chance for lowering the risks and the next UBB is in the cue line; it’s just a matter of time.

    Since coal mining is here to stay, like it or not, we the people need to apply technology to this industry and take some of the human destruction out of its daily grind. Since this is a national issue, our national leadership needs to address the problems that human beings who extract the coal continue to endure. A technology transfer between entities like NASA and mining must occur to bring the most sophisticated solutions to the world of employment underground. Mining underground is akin to working in space. Both atmospheres are hostile environments for humans; surely, things learned in our nations most advanced technical communities could be applied to mining problems.

    Now is the time to stop treating the coal communities with indifference. Let 4/5/10 be a seminal date for the mining community, lest we forget the same problems will keep repeating. Insanity is: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results Einstein reminds us. Until there is a consensus in the highest offices in the nation nothing will change for the miners and their families. I say strike, rolling strikes until we get some responsible commitment to improve conditions from those who rule. Let the 29 who died at UBB, and the thousands of others who died before them and the countless family members who suffered be remembered and respected.

  3. Thomas Rodd says:

    I would like to see this entire hearing online. How do I do that?

  4. oldcoalminer says:

    Here’s another quote from Mr. Einstein ” X+Y+Z= Success; X=work, Y= play, Z= keep your mouth shut.” Now Mr. clay ton I don’t know how but your trying to take something out of the hard working coal miners pockets. Nobody has to work in a dangerous coal mine. MSHA and the WV Miners Health and Safety have toll free numbers that can be called to report unsafe conditions and it will be confidential and anonomously. We coal miners aren’t slaves to any coal company or union. We look out for one another. Here’s a novel idea tell the men that run the coal mine that there’s a hazard in there and see if they will take care of it. If he won’t then go to his boss. Mine managers aren’t stupid enough to let things like that go on even if he doesn’t care anything about the men he doesn’t want to be prosecuted.

  5. clay ton says:

    Hi Old Coal Miner,

    No one here wants to take away work from WV miners or miners anywhere.

    The use of coal is not going to diminish in our lifetimes, as a matter of fact MET is getting more valuable, and most the MET Massey mines goes to China and India to make steel in their factories. We Americans end up buying goods at Walmart, etc. made with WV MET while our steel factories sit idle.

    What’s at question here is the miners ability to assure a safe working place. Ken Ward Jr. has pointed out that 9 out of 10 mine accidents could be prevented if the laws on the books were followed.

    I’ve labored enough to know that sometimes a (mine) boss will push the limits on safety to get a job done, perhaps that’s what’s been going on in some mines. Everybody knows if you want to be on the ‘team’ and keep your job you will shut up. However, keeping your mouth shut about safety violations does not sound like a good way to keep a safe work environment which leads to situations like Sago, and probably UBB.

    Mining by it’s very nature is a dangerous occupation with many inherent problems like black lung. Once upon a time it was just picks and shovels, today mining is sophisticated and scientific; we need to utilize the latest scientific methods to assure maximum safe production.

    Miners lives are important, they should not be overlooked or abused.

  6. oldcoalminer says:

    What the general public doesn’t realize is that coal miners have to know a great deal about electricity, electronics, fluid dynamics, geology, statics & strengths, and possess a good hand eye coordination to survive. Coal miners aren’t stupid. What I was saying was that we go to our jobs everyday deal with the equipment, the geologic conditions, the bosses, the inspectors, the company policies, and the dust. If the companies could replace us with machines and technology don’t you think they would. I thank God that they couldn’t replace me and I’ve been able to raise and educate two beautiful children and spoil half a dozen grandchildren. Until they can find a machine to replace me I’ll keep mining coal with the coal miners I’ve grown to love for the past 39 years.

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Massey Energy sent out this response to Mr. Harris’ testimony and to remarks made by UMW President Cecil Roberts at today’s hearing:

    Mr. Harris is part of the UMWA team that Cecil Roberts has assembled in response to the UBB tragedy. Mr. Harris worked for a Massey Energy subsidiary for a short period of time. We find his statements difficult to believe and do not believe he raised any such concerns while in our employment. The picture he paints is not representative of Massey’s mines and Massey does not tolerate such conditions. Both federal law and Massey policies protect miners who speak out about safety concerns.

    When asked in recent anonymous surveys of all underground Massey miners, over 90% of those who responded said that Massey is safer than other companies. Over 95% said that Massey stresses proper safety procedures, 93% said Massey is committed to safety in the workplace and 90% said that Massey’s safety program makes Massey mines safer than required by law. Over 97% of those who responded said that safety was important to Massey.

    These miners would not work in the climate alleged by Mr. Harris. Mr. Roberts and Mr. Harris insult these miners when they suggest otherwise.

  8. Vernon says:

    Massey is calling Mr. Harris and anyone else who has ever admitted to being told to violate safety regulations a liar. Does anyone think Massey employees can report violations with any real confidence their identity and job will be protected? It’s now apparent that Massey intends to blame the UBB disaster on the miners who lost their lives.

  9. Suzanne says:

    Very good discussion oldcoalminer and clayton. I am researching the coal industry and trying to find voices from each side of the issue. It is very easy to find those who have spoken out about the environmental and negative impact of coal. I was introduced to the coal culture by by my son who works for SAMS. I have toured coal valley, I have witnessed the utter destruction of the earth by MTR. I also appreciate that entire towns and counties are financially and culturly built on coal.

    I am most interested in hearing from those who truly believe in coal and how they balance that support with the evidence of environmental damage of the areas in which they live. I have read enough about coal mamagement to know that corners are constantly being cut. Safety (both that of miners and communities) is not always the highest priortiy.

    I have read that coal companies (Massey especially) have created a closed society of miners. Is it true that they are encouraged not to socialize with families “outside the company”? They are to view outsiders with caution and reveal as little as possible about life inside the company.

    I want to hear from miners. If all is well and miners are proud of their profession, I would love to hear from you. I want to gather your stories.

  10. PennyBlue says:

    Massey wants to blame everyone it can – UMWA and MSHA are just the start. “Politicians” will be next. Anyone, to avoid taking responsibility for their own disregard for safety. I’d love to know how much the company spends for lawyers to fight fines and lawsuits. Much more, I’m sure, than they would spend on doing safety the correct way right off the bat.
    Thank you Mr. Harris for coming forward. The company can minimize him all they want, but there are other former and current Massey miners talking now to the “right” folks.

  11. Max Shelby says:

    There is another party culpable to this tragedy that is flying under the radar and should step out and make a statement.

    They are receiving a production based royalty stream from Massey and Patriot (who owns the mine where Mr, Harris is presently employed) through lease agreements.

    “Massey & NRP ties picked up nationally” April 26, 2010 entry and also running on The Seminal, DC web paper as “Who else is culpable for Massey’s negligence?”

    Worker safety and environmental issues are not profit centers.

    “Be quiet and run coal” is the mantra.

    The nature of the work has inherent risks, agreed, but to flagrantly deny even basic safety conditions is totally unacceptable.

    Production at any cost cannot be tolerated any longer.

    Enough of this.

  12. tony says:

    i am a proud coal miner. i work at a umwa represented mines, i have worked non union in the past. union or non union we are all coal miners just trying to make a honest living for our family. i do have to voice my opinion here, i can honestly say if and when someone says anything about an unsafe condition at our mine it is taken care of, no argument , not frowned upon for reporting it, just told then showed the problem was taken care of. that it one thing im very glad to belong to a umwa represented mines you dont have to fear for your job for speaking your mind and voicing your opinion, not saying you cant anywhere else becuase its been quiet a few years since i worked for massey. i knew personally a cple of the men who parished at the ubb mine. they was good men hard working, like most wv coal miners. most of us arent highly educated as you can tell from my writing skills, but we do good at our jobs we are professionals. i just hate to hear anyone putting down a miner for being union or non union to each his own i always say but i would not want to work non union at all after i found out the difference between the two, but hey that is just me..

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