Zeigler Coal Holding Company
1996 Safety Summit Speech
by: W. Douglas Blackburn, Jr.
Senior Vice President of Operations
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a favorite song sung by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
It’s called “The Highwayman,” and I bet some of you know it. I’ve listened to it many times, but this time, it suddenly hit me that this song is about me ... and about you.
If you’ll indulge me for just a moment, I’d like to play that song for you now...
I was a highwayman ... along the coach roads I did ride
With sword and pistol by my side
Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade.
Many a soldier lost his lifeblood on my blade.
The bastards hung me in the spring of ‘25
But I am still alive,
I was a sailor…I was born upon the tide
With the sea I did abide
I sailed a schooner round the horn of Mexico
I went aloft to furl the mainsail in a ‘blow
And when the yards broke off they said that I got killed
But I am living still.
I was a dam builder…across the river deep and wide
Where steel and water did collide
A place called Boulder on the wide Colorado
I slipped and fell into the wet concrete below
They buried me in that great tomb that knows no sound
But I am still around
I’ll always be around ... and around ... and around...
I fly a starship across the universe divide
And when I reach the other side
I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can
Perhaps I may become a highwayman again
Or I may simply be a single drop of rain
But I will remain
And I’ll be back again ... and again ... and again…
I realized that this song was about me ... about the coal miner in me ... because I was there. So I’d like to add a verse or two to that song.
I was there...
I was a coal miner in Algoma, West Virginia in 1902. The Tug River Valley was booming... and the coal companies hired scores of poor and uneducated men to work the mines... the nation’s most hazardous occupation.
It was a Monday in Algoma when the foremen led 17 untrained men into the workings. We were wearing open lights on our caps... lights fueled by whale oil. These men didn’t even know what methane was, much less that it had been accumulating all weekend. The explosion and fire killed some of them immediately ... others suffocated. I suffocated. That night, they recovered the bodies of the entire crew.
They killed me in Algoma. But I am still around. I’ll always be around ... and around and around.
I was there…
I was a coal miner in Zeigler, Illinois in 1904, when a strike turned ugly. Replacement workers and UMW men engaged in a veritable war ... you could see the gunfire being exchanged every night when an underground explosion killed me and 56 of my brothers, they said it was caused by all the gunpowder stored in the mine. Before it was all over, at least two dozen more men died in the accidents and violence that grew out of the labor dispute.
They killed me in Zeigler, Illinois. But I am still around. I’ll always be around ... and around ... and around.
I was there...
I was a coal miner in Monongha, West Virginia, in 1907, when eight runaway coal cars picked up speed far half a mile before they crashed at the bottom of the mine, where the coal dust was said to be hip-deep. The explosion ... this is the one they call the granddaddy of them all took 361 lives. Not one man who walked into the mine that morning went home to supper that night. But while Monongha left no survivors, it did leave 250 widows ... mine included ... and a thousand orphans. It also left us with some important lessons.
They killed me at Monongha, but I am still around. I’ll always be around ... and around - and around.
I was there…
I was a coal miner in Farmington, West Virginia in 1.968. During Thanksgiving week, Farmington had an explosion on the midnight shift ... and over the next ten days it exploded nineteen times.
That tragedy filled the TV coverage during that holiday season. Twenty-one men were miraculously rescued. But the rest ... me and 77 other miners ... were still in the mine. The families of those 78 men were summoned to the local Methodist church, where they were told that their husbands, brothers and fathers were assumed dead ... and the mine was being sealed to avoid more explosions. My brother asked the coal company president why more safety measures had not been put in place. He asked, “Would it have cost too much?” And the president of the coal company simply walked away.
They buried me in that great tomb that knows no sound. But I am still around. I’11 always be around ... and around.... and around. And this time, I was there not only in spirit; I was at this mine body and soul.
Fifteen months after that first explosion, I came to Farmington to start my coal mining career.
I was part of the recovery team that went in and reclaimed the bodies. It was a hell of a way to begin a career. For five months I saw the devastation of a major coal mine disaster… fourteen bodies reclaimed out of the seventy-eight killed ... unbelievable horror.
As you might imagine, seeing that tragedy ... and those lives lost ... made an indelible impression on me.
I am still a coal miner in 1996. And I stand in front of you, my fellow coal miners, and I tell you, I was there. They killed the again and again ... and yet I stand here today, knowing that it is my responsibility to remember what I have seen, and knowing that it is also my responsibility to never, ever walk away when I am asked if I have done enough.
To the contrary, I must ask myself, have I done enough?
And I must ask you, too ... were you there?
Were you there for your miners this year?
Did you do enough?
Were you there by demonstrating your personal commitment?
Did you have an “exceptional attitude” ... if something was out of line, did you take exception with it right then?
Did you exhibit zero tolerance? Did you walk the talk?
Did you really believe ... and do you continue to believe?
Were you there with your personal involvement?
Did you personally design and implement a safety program dedicated to hazard awareness and accident prevention?
Did you support that program?
Did you personally evaluate your operations for hazards?
Did you lead a safety meeting?
Did you reward safety performance personally?
Did you provide first response personally in any situation this year?
Were you there by promoting safety awareness?
Did you evaluate employees for safe work practices?
Did you discuss safe work conditions and practices with employees and families?
Did you develop a safety newsletter?
Where you there by supporting safety professionals?
Did you train safety professionals at your mine?
Did you demonstrate your respect and support of your safety professionals publicly?
Did you involve your safety professionals in all meetings?
Were you there by supporting emergency preparedness?
Did you train EMTs?
Did you develop an effective mine emergency plan?
Did you develop and train a competent mine emergency team?
If you say yes to each o£ these questions, then you were there for your people. And I sincerely hope you will keep these questions in mind as you go forward into 1997.
I’d also like for you to keep in mind that we just did a major employee survey ... and some of our employees don’t believe their managers are committed to safety. I know this is not true; I know that this is a matter of perception. But our general managers and senior leaders need to demonstrate that commitment, so no one will doubt that it exists. We need to walk the walk ... and talk the talk.
You’ll remember that last year, I asked each of you to make a formal, vocal commitment to safety here in this room. And each of us stood here and read that commitment card.
You’ll also remember that very day, even as we were coming together to make our safety plans, a tragic accident killed one of our men. So I don't have to tell you that it is impossible to do too much; that we can never truly say we’ve done enough until we have reached zero incidents.
So I ask you again...
Will you be there? Will you join with me in 1.997 in safety leadership?
Will you, senior management and general managers, come forward and stand as a group and commit to greater safety leadership in the future?
Will you join with me today and recommit yourself to an accident-free workplace? To doing everything you possibly can to making sure that each and every one of our miners goes home to his family unharmed?
Will you be there?
On the table are copies of that safety commitment card. I’d like to ask all of you to stand now ...and let’s read them together:
I, DOUG BLACKBURN, BELIEVE IN AN ACCIDENT-FREE WORKPLACE AND A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT. I WILL, DEDICATE MY TIME AND LEADERSHIP TALENTS TO PROVIDING A SAFE AND HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT FOR THE PEOPLE WHOSE SAFETY AND HEALTH I AM ENTRUSTED WITH.
I asked you to carry that card in your wallet, or post it on your bathroom mirror or your telephone, and read it to yourself once a day, every day. I’d like to ask you to continue doing that ... and in addition, I’ll be sending each of you a copy of those questions I asked you earlier. I’d like you to look at them and ask yourself, was I there?
I am a coal miner. And I will be there to paraphrase Johnny Cash, “And when I reach the other side ... I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can ... perhaps I may become a coal miner again.