The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. caused my jaw to drop several times this morning with his story “Mine hailed as model of safety faces federal probe.”  At the Patriot Coal company’s Federal No. 2 mine—the underground coal mine that Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis visited in August 2009—a foreman has admitted to falsifying records on levels of explosive gases AND  he asserts that he was forced by upper management to do so.   The kernels of information assembled by Ken Ward on the alleged safety and organizational problems at Federal No 2 are remarkable by themselves, but there was one other nugget in his story that really caught my eye:

“An MSHA official at the district office in Morgantown [WV] refused to comment and hung up on a reporter.”

Hung up on a reporter?   ….a reporter whose name is Ken Ward Jr.? 

Lesson #1 to staff at MSHA and OSHA: Don’t hang up on Ken Ward Jr.

First, it is rude and disrespectful behavior.  

Second, and more importantly, Ken Ward Jr. and his skilled, consistent and long-standing reporting have been instrumental in helping the public health and labor rights’ communities advance and improve protections for workers.  In these lean times of congressional oversight, we need Ken Ward Jr. and more professional reporters like him to advance the cause.

In the true spirit of journalism as a public service, Ken Ward Jr. has exposed regulatory and enforcement lapses, and the misdeeds of individuals, employers and corporations.  He’s among a rare breed of journalists (e.g., Andrew Schneider, Mike Gorrell, Alexandra Berzon, Ames Alexander, Jim Morris, Ralph Dunlop and a few others) who see the value in writing about worker health and safety.  Ward has investigated and written at least 500 OHS-related stories over his 19 years at the Gazette, putting a human face on workers’ deaths on the job, including his probe into fatal incidents involving Chad Cook, Carl FishWilliam Birchfield and Rodney SheetsBud Morris, among many others.   In the whole U.S., he’s probably the only reporter at a daily newspaper who consistently covers worker health and safety.  We need him.

There’s no doubt that federal agency officials and staff can get annoyed by reporters’ questions and their dogged, deadline-looming requests for information.   I’m sure an inquiry from Ken Ward makes MSHA and OSHA officials particularly nervous.  The astute and strategic, however, will know that Ward has a knack for identifying failures and screw-ups, AND sticking with an issue as long as it takes.  That’s exactly why they should respect him, maybe gripe about him at times, but never ever hang-up on him.