The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward amazes me with his tenacious attention to worker safety, his watchdog instincts, and his exceptional commitment to follow-up.   One of Ward’s practices that I especially appreciate is his detailed reporting of worker fatalities in West Virginia.  Take for example, the death in March 2008 of Ricky Collins Sr., 44, a truck driver for a subsidiary of Massey Energy.   Ward reported initially on Mr. Collins’ death explaining:

“…he was killed Thursday [March 27] when he tried to help free a trailer that was stuck on a steep…or ‘humpbacked,’ railroad crossing along W.Va. 17 near Stollings, WV.  A truck was crossing the tracks pulling a “low boy” trailer when the trailer became stuck on the crossing.  The victim, an employee of Massey’s Mass Transport subsidiary, was attempting to free the trailer when he was struck by a piece of metal.” 

In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Collins’ death, MSHA and the State of WV’s Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, said their agencies would not investigate the fatality because it didn’t occur on mine property.  When I read about Mr. Collins’ death, it sure seemed to me to be a mining-related death—the trucker had been hired to haul highwall mining equipment from the factory to Massey Energy’s Freeze Fork surface coal mine.   Ken Ward confirmed that the deceased Mr. Collins was employed by the company’s Highland Mining Company.

I’ve written previously about MSHA’s process for determining whether a worker’s death will be “counted” in its annual statistics.  I give the agency credit for listing not only the deaths it will count as work-related, but those that it considered but finally deemed not work-related (see example here) I don’t necessarily agree with the process or all the final determinations, but at least the information is easily accessible.   (Thank you, MSHA.)

 But back to Ken Ward and his commitment to follow-up.  Because MSHA has a formal process for determining whether a death is—in MSHA vernacular— “chargeable” to the mining industry, the fatal incident involving Mr. Ricky Collins, 44, was evaluated accordingly.  On October 1, MSHA made an official determination that Mr. Collins’ death would not be “charged” to the mining industry.   Seven months after the fatality, Ward reported on MSHA’s conclusion, which noted:

“… Collins was overseeing re-attaching the trailer to the tractor.  He was struck in the head by a metal shim that broke loose as a loaded trailer was being jacked up to reconnect it to the tractor (truck).  He died later from his injuries.  The railroad and railroad crossing are under the control of CSX Transportation, Inc. and the site of the accident is 6.4 miles from the Freeze Fork Surface mine.  [The MSHA committee] concluded that [Collins’] death should not be charged to the mining industry because the accident did not occur on mine property and did not result from activity on mine property.”

Ward’s watchdog instincts serve us well.  He knew that Mr. Collins’ death was WORK-RELATED and set out to determine which government agency was investigating it.  (As we learned in the case of Chad Cook, 25, another worker death brought to our attention by Ken Ward, not all worker deaths are adequately or appropriately investigated.)

Mr. Collins’ death was deemed work-related and OSHA conducted an investigation.  The Charleston Gazette’s  Ken Ward let us know  that OSHA issued one citation (a general duty clause (5(a)1)) violation, and a penalty of $2,250.  

Ward wrote:

“OSHA investigators determined that safer ways to re-attach the trailer to the tractor were not being used, and that the company could have used a different type of trailer that does not bottom out when going over railroad crossings, documents show.”

The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward exemplifies for me the vital role of journalists in keeping the public informed.   He recognizes that reporting is not just about the eye-catching headline of deaths and sorrow, but probing a story over the long-term to report on its consequences and outcome.  West Virginia’s workers and families should consider him a true public servant.  I know I do.

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH first became familiar with Ken Ward’s stellar reporting when she worked at MSHA (1996-2001).  She recalls meeting him for the first time in 2005.  They converse from time to time on different public health issues including worker S&H, and agree to disagree on certain matters.  They are both members of the Society of Environmental Journalists‘ First Amendment Taskforce.