Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.

Since 2010, Berkes has focused mostly on investigative projects, beginning with the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia in which 29 workers died. Since then, Berkes has reported on coal mine and workplace safety, including the safety lapses at the Upper Big Branch mine, other failures in mine safety regulation, the resurgence of the deadly coal miners disease black lung and weak enforcement of grain bin safety as worker deaths reached a record high. Berkes was part of the team that collaborated with the Center for Public Integrity in 2011 resulting in Poisoned Places, a series exploring weaknesses in air pollution regulation by states and EPA.

Before moving into his current role, Berkes spent a decade serving as NPR's first rural affairs correspondent. His reporting focused on the politics, economics and culture of rural America.

Based in Salt Lake City, Berkes reported on the stories that are often unique to non-urban communities or provide a rural perspective on major issues and events. In 2005 and 2006, he was part of the NPR reporting team that covered Hurricane Katrina, emphasizing impacts in rural areas. His rural reporting also included the effects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on military families and service men and women from rural America, including a disproportionate death rate from this community. During multiple presidential and congressional campaigns, Berkes has covered the impact of rural voters on those races.

Berkes has also covered eight summer and winter Olympic games, beginning with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, through the 2012 games in London. His reporting in 1998 about Salt Lake City's Olympic bid helped transform a largely local story about suspicious payments to the relatives of members of the International Olympic Committee into an international ethics scandal that resulted in Federal and Congressional investigations.

Berkes' ongoing reporting of Olympic politics and the Olympic Games has made him a resource to other news organizations, including The PBS Newshour, MSNBC, A&E's Investigative Reports, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the French magazine L'Express, Al Jazeera America and others. When the Olympics finally arrived in Salt Lake City, Berkes' coverage included rides in a bobsled and on a luge sled in attempts to help listeners understand how those sports work. Berkes was part of the reporting team that earned NPR a 2009 Edward R. Murrow Award for Sports Reporting for coverage of the Beijing Olympics.

In 1981, Berkes pioneered NPR's coverage of the interior of the American West and public lands issues. He's traveled thousands of miles since then, to every corner of the region, driving ranch roads, city streets, desert washes, and mountain switchbacks, to capture the voices and sounds that give the region its unique identity.

Berkes' stories are heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. His analysis of regional issues was featured on NPR's Talk of the Nation. Berkes has also been a substitute host of Morning Edition and Weekend All Things Considered.

An easterner by birth, Berkes moved west in 1976, and soon became a volunteer at NPR member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. His reports on the 1980 eruptions of Mt. St. Helens were regular features on NPR and prompted his hiring by the network. Berkes is sometimes best remembered for his story that provided the first detailed account of the attempt by Morton Thiokol engineers to stop the fatal 1986 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Berkes teamed with NPR's Daniel Zwerdling for the report, which earned a number of major national journalism awards. In 1989, Berkes followed up with another award-winning report that examined NASA's efforts to redesign the Space Shuttle's rocket boosters.

Berkes has covered Native American issues, the militia movement, neo-nazi groups, nuclear waste, the Unabomber case, the Montana Freemen standoff, polygamy, the Mormon faith, western water issues, mass shootings and more. His work has been honored by many organizations, including the American Psychological Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, the Harvard Kennedy School and the National Association of Science Writers.

Berkes has also trained news reporters, consulted with radio news departments, and served as a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. In 1997, he was awarded a Nieman Foundation Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University.

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NPR Story
4:33 am
Mon March 30, 2015

Employers And Insurers Gain Control In Workers' Compensation Disputes

Frances Stevens uses a custom ramp leading to her van. An accident at work 17 years ago left her unable to walk. She received full workers' compensation benefits until two years ago when the insurer suddenly withdrew her medications and home health aide. Her lawsuit is a test of the state's use of anonymous independent medical reviewers.
Glenna Gordon for ProPublica

Frances Stevens could have been a contender. She was training to be a Golden Gloves boxer and working as a magazine publisher in 1997 when 1,000 copies of the latest issue arrived at her San Francisco office.

"I'd just turned 30. I was an athlete. I had a job that I loved, a life that I loved," she recalls. "And in a second my life changed."

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Around the Nation
2:03 am
Fri March 6, 2015

As Workers' Comp Varies From State To State, Workers Pay The Price

Jeremy Lewis lost his left arm during a work-related incident while working at a poultry plant in Alabama. The state has the nation's lowest workers' compensation benefits for amputations and sent Lewis into just the kind of downward spiral workers' comp was intended to prevent.
Dustin Chambers for ProPublica

Originally published on Mon March 23, 2015 11:37 am

At the time of their accidents, Jeremy Lewis was 27, Josh Potter 25.

The men lived within 75 miles of each other. Both were married with two children about the same age. Both even had tattoos of their children's names.

Their injuries, suffered on the job at Southern industrial plants, were remarkably similar, too. Each man lost a portion of his left arm in a machinery accident.

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The Two-Way
10:04 am
Thu March 5, 2015

U.S. Appeals Court Overturns Gag Order In Mine Disaster Case

Former Massey Energy Company Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship, seen in July 2010, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges associated with the 2010 West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 men.
Jacquelyn Martin AP

A federal appeals court has vacated a sweeping gag order in the criminal case involving former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster.

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NPR News Investigations
7:17 am
Thu March 5, 2015

'Grand Bargain' In Workers' Comp Unravels, Harming Injured Workers Further

Joel Ramirez climbs back into his wheelchair with the help of Francisco Guardado, a home health aide, at his home in Rialto, Calif. Ramirez was paralyzed from the waist down in 2009 when a 900-pound crate fell on him at a warehouse. Changes to California workers' compensation laws have impacted his quality of care.
Patrick T. Fallon for ProPublica

Originally published on Mon March 23, 2015 11:38 am

Workers injured on the job are supposed to get guaranteed medical care and money to live on. Employers and their insurance companies pay for that.

And in return, employers don't get sued for workplace accidents. But this "grand bargain," as it's called, in workers' compensation, seems to be unraveling.

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The Two-Way
1:03 am
Thu March 5, 2015

Federal Regulators Link Workers' Comp Failures To Income Inequality

Originally published on Thu March 5, 2015 8:13 am

A few hours after ProPublica and NPR issued the first in a series of reports about workers' compensation "reforms" sweeping the country, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration coincidentally released a paper linking workplace injuries to income inequality.

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NPR News Investigations
2:04 am
Wed March 4, 2015

Injured Workers Suffer As 'Reforms' Limit Workers' Compensation Benefits

Lupita Ramirez dresses her husband, Joel, at their home in Rialto, Calif. Joel was paralyzed from the waist down after being crushed by a pallet when he was working in a warehouse.
Patrick T. Fallon for ProPublica

Originally published on Mon March 23, 2015 11:38 am

Dennis Whedbee's crew was rushing to prepare an oil well for pumping on the Sweet Grass Woman lease site, a speck of dusty plains rich with crude in Mandaree, N.D.

It was getting late that September afternoon in 2012. Whedbee, a 50-year-old derrick hand, was helping another worker remove a pipe fitting on top of the well when it suddenly blew.

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Delinquent Mines
2:02 am
Mon January 12, 2015

Regulators Take Action Against Delinquent Mines

Originally published on Tue January 20, 2015 11:28 am

Two weeks after NPR and Mine Safety and Health News reported nearly $70 million in delinquent mine safety penalties at more than 4,000 coal and mineral mines, federal regulators suddenly revived a rare approach to force mines to pay.

They cited a delinquent coal mine for failing to pay $30,000 in overdue penalties and gave the mine's owner two weeks to pay. He didn't, so the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) shut down the mine. Within 40 minutes, mine officials agreed to a payment plan and the mine reopened.

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The Two-Way
3:26 pm
Wed November 19, 2014

Delinquent Mine Fines: 'Clearly Troubling ... More Can Be Done'

Originally published on Thu November 20, 2014 7:21 am

A key House Republican called today for federal regulators to crack down on mine owners who don't pay fines for safety violations, saying, "Clearly more can be done."

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NPR News Investigations
12:35 pm
Wed November 12, 2014

Coal Mines Keep Operating Despite Injuries, Violations And Millions In Fines

This photo of Roy Middleton working underground at the Kentucky Darby mine now sits on the mantel in the Middleton home in Harlan County, Ky. He was killed after an explosion in 2006.
Anna Boiko-Weyrauch/NPR Original photo courtesy of the Middleton family

Originally published on Thu November 13, 2014 6:21 am

Jack Blankenship was pinned facedown in the dirt, his neck, shoulder and back throbbing with pain.

He was alone on an errand, in a dark tunnel a mile underground at the Aracoma Alma coal mine in Logan County, W.Va., when a 300-pound slab of rock peeled away from the roof and slammed him to the ground. As his legs grew numb, he managed to free an arm and reach his radio. For two hours, he pressed the panic button that was supposed to bring help quickly.

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The Two-Way
12:11 pm
Thu May 15, 2014

The Turkish Mine Disaster: How Could It Happen?

Miners rest Thursday during a break in the rescue operation after a mine explosion near Soma, Turkey.
Tolga Bozoglu EPA/Landov

Originally published on Thu May 15, 2014 2:08 pm

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has enraged families of the victims of the Soma mine disaster by characterizing mining accidents as "ordinary things."

In fact, the disaster appears to have ordinary causes familiar to mining experts, who note that well-known precautions exist to prevent the kind of explosion that killed so many in Turkey.

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