Page Title

The Westray Story : NS Labour and Workforce Development

Report of the Westray Mine Public Inquiry
Justice K. Peter Richard, Commissioner

November 1997

"The most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner."

Frédéric Le Play (1806-1882)
French sociologist and inspector general of mines of France

At 5:20 am on 9 May 1992
the Westray mine exploded taking the
lives of the following 26 miners.

John Thomas Bates, 56

Larry Arthur Bell, 25

Bennie Joseph Benoit, 42

Wayne Michael Conway, 38

Ferris Todd Dewan, 35

Adonis J. Dollimont, 36

Robert Steven Doyle, 22

Remi Joseph Drolet, 38

Roy Edward Feltmate, 33

Charles Robert Fraser, 29

Myles Daniel Gillis, 32

John Philip Halloran, 33

Randolph Brian House, 27

Trevor Martin Jahn, 36

Laurence Elwyn James, 34

Eugene W. Johnson, 33

Stephen Paul Lilley, 40

Michael Frederick MacKay, 38

Angus Joseph MacNeil, 39

Glenn David Martin, 35

Harry A. McCallum, 41

Eric Earl McIsaac, 38

George S. James Munroe, 38

Danny James Poplar, 39

Romeo Andrew Short, 35

Peter Francis Vickers, 38

This Report is dedicated to their memory.

In the early morning of 9 May 1992 a violent explosion rocked the tiny community of Plymouth, just east of Stellarton, in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. The explosion occurred in the depths of the Westray coal mine, instantly killing the 26 miners working there at the time. On 15 May 1992, I was appointed by Order in Council to inquire into and report on this disaster.

During the formative days of this Inquiry, as my understanding of the underground coal mining industry developed, I was struck by two notions that have persisted throughout. The industry is very close-knit with an interdependence, camaraderie, and fellowship that may be unique in modern-day business. And people in the industry, at all levels, regard what occurred at Westray as a personal matter affecting them as if it had happened in their own backyard. It is for them a family tragedy. I suspect that these attitudes have deep historic roots. There are few industries in which one's safety, indeed one's very survival, is so inextricably linked to the attitudes, practices, concerns, and behaviour of fellow workers. Truly, in the underground coal mining environment, you are "your brother's keeper." The miner who sneaks a smoke while underground is risking the lives of his fellow miners. On 7 December 1992, the flick of a cigarette lighter underground caused the death of eight miners at the Southmountain Coal Company in Virginia.

The Westray tragedy is regarded in the industry as a black mark against coal mining in general rather than as a merely localized event. As a result, I received a remarkable degree of cooperation from the industry, which, while being most encouraging, underscored the solemn responsibility I had assumed. The coal industry — miners, managers, operators, and regulators — is most anxious to determine what can be learned as a result of this tragedy and what can be done to prevent another.

The 1981 Report of the Joint Federal-Provincial Inquiry Commission into Safety in Mines and Mining Plants in Ontario (the Burkett Report) is aptly entitled Towards Safe Production. As its title suggests, the entire thrust of the report is to increase and to promote safe practices in mines. The only completely safe mine is a closed mine. By the same token, the only completely safe aircraft is on the ground with the engines off. The only truly safe automobile is the one parked in the garage. Once a mine is open, there begins the constant process of trade-off between production and safety. From the chief executive officer to the miner at the working face, the objective must be to operate the mine in a manner that ensures the personal safety of the worker over the economic imperatives of increased production. The two seemingly competing concepts — safety and production — must be so harmonized that they can co-exist without doing harm to each other. It is here that the regulator must assume the role of monitor and aggressively ensure that the balance is understood and maintained. In this sense, the function of the regulator is both instructive and supervisory. As one provincial mine inspector in Ontario told me, "Ideally, if we perform our duties properly we will eventually work ourselves out of a job." As I read Towards Safe Production, I was impressed with the clarity and wisdom of this regulatory role.

The Order in Council that established this Inquiry gives me power to "inquire into . . . whether the occurrence was or was not preventable." Of course it was. For this Report we have chosen the title The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster to convey that message. The message is that the Westray tragedy was predictable and, therefore, preventable. The Report contains recommendations and suggestions aimed at avoiding a similar occurrence in the future.

Anyone who hopes to find in this Report a simple and conclusive answer as to how this tragedy happened will be disappointed. Anyone who expects that this Report will single out one or two persons and assess total blame for the tragedy will be similarly disappointed. The Westray Story is a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity, and neglect. Some well-intentioned but misguided blunders were also added to the mix. It was clear from the outset that the loss of 26 lives at Plymouth, Pictou County, in the early morning hours of 9 May 1992 was not the result of a single definable event or misstep. Only the serenely uninformed (the wilfully blind) or the cynically self-serving could be satisfied with such an explanation.

This Report has been written with the benefit of hindsight, which, as the saying goes, provides 20/20 vision. Many of the incidents that now appear to fit into the mosaic might at the time, and of themselves, have seemed trivial. Viewed in context, these seemingly isolated incidents constitute a mind-set or operating philosophy that appears to favour expediency over intelligent planning and that trivializes safety concerns. Indeed, management at Westray displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as the wimps in the organization. To its discredit, the management at Westray, through either incompetence or ignorance, lost sight of the basic tenet of coal mining: that safe mining is good business. As one mining executive remarked to me in June 1996 during a mine visit to Alabama, "We could not afford to operate an unsafe mine, due to the high cost of accidents and downtime." Certainly, the validity of this concept was never more obvious than in the horrible aftermath of Westray.

The tale that unfolds in the ensuing narrative is the Westray Story. It is a story of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency, and of cynical indifference. It is a tragic story, with the inevitable moments of pathos and heroism. The Westray Story concerns an event that, in all good common sense, ought not to have occurred. It did occur — and that is our unfortunate legacy.

Published on the authority of the Lieutenant Governor in Council by the Westray Mine Public Inquiry.

Table of Contents

© Province of Nova Scotia 1997
Permission is hereby given by the copyright holder for any person to reproduce this report or any part thereof.

ISBN 0-88871-468-8