House Hearing Focuses on Mine, Workplace Safety

Image: Mike HallYesterday afternoon, Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts told the House Education and Labor Committee, “We can and must do a better job of protecting our nation’s miners,” and urged Congress to approve legislation to strengthen mine and workplace safety laws.

The bill, the Miner Safety and Health Act (H.R. 5663),  focuses on mine safety, but also includes provisions to strengthen worker safety protections in all workplaces. Its backers say recent deadly workplace disasters are concrete but tragic evidence that job safety laws must be improved.

Just this year, the deadly Massey Energy Upper Big Branch explosion  killed 29 coal miners; the Tesoro refinery blast claimed the lives of seven Washington State workers; the BP oil rig blast killed 11,  and six workers died at  a Connecticut Kleen Energy Systems explosion.

As Roberts told the committee: “Clearly the status quo isn’t good enough.”

The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) efforts have failed to motivate at least some mine operators, like Massey, to operate their mines safely each and every day.

Stanley “Goose” Stewart was able to escape the April 5 blast at Upper Big Branch. He outlined more than a dozen safety shortcuts and violations, from ventilation to coal dust and methane levels, conducted and condoned by mine management he witnessed at Upper Big Branch. The 34-year-veteran miner, who spent 15 years at Performance Coal Co., the Massey subsidiary operating Upper Big Branch, told the committee:

Something needs to be done to stop outlaw coal companies who blatantly disregard the laws…This bill must pass to keep coal companies honest or make them pay the price for their unscrupulous behavior. Partisanship must be set aside on the legislation because human lives are at stake.

MSHA chief Joe Main, told the committee that the bill “will change the culture of safety in the mining industry…and put the health and safety of miners first.”

It does not simply fix a particular hazard or practice that caused the last disaster, as has often been the pattern in mine safety reform. Instead, it gives MSHA the tools it needs either to make mine operators live up to their legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace for all miners, or to step in with effective enforcement when operators refuse to live up to this responsibility and endanger miners.

AFL-CIO General Counsel Lynn Rhinehart told the committee that the improvements to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) in the bill are long overdue and “urgently needed.”

Pointing to the most recent deadly workplace disasters, Rhinehart said that since the OSH Act was passed 40 years ago,

the law has never been significantly updated or strengthened, and as a result, the law is woefully out of date.  The OSH Act’s penalties are weak compared to other laws, the government’s enforcement tools are limited, and protections for workers who raise job safety concerns are inadequate and far weaker than the anti-retaliation provisions of numerous other laws.  The law simply does not provide a sufficient deterrent against employers who would cut corners on safety and put workers in harm’s way.

On the mining side, the bill would crack down on serial safety violators of mine safety rules by revamping the criteria for placing a mine in what is called “pattern of violation” (POV) status that launches tougher enforcement and stronger penalties.

Mine operators have been able to game the POV rules so successfully that not a single mine has been placed in the POV status since 1977. Main called the changes in the POV system the “most important new tools” in the bill.

The Upper Big Branch mine had been repeatedly cited for ventilation and dust buildup problems before the blast. But many of those violations were under appeal, a tactic mine operators use to delay greater scrutiny. Said committee chairman, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) :

The Upper Big Branch mine is the perfect example of how current law is inadequate, especially for those operations that do everything to flout the law.

The bill also would guarantee miners the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions, a right that is written into every Mine Workers (UMWA) contract. Nonunion miners have long said they fear employer retaliation if they speak out about mine safety problems.

It also would strengthen whistleblower protections for workers who speak out about unsafe conditions or who testify in safety investigations.

Under the bill, MSHA would have stronger enforcement tools, including the authority to subpoena documents and testimony and seek court orders to close a mine when there is a continuing threat to the health and safety of miners. It also increases civil and criminal penalties for mine owners who violate safety laws.

For other workplaces covered by OSHA, the bill would strengthen whistleblower protections, increase criminal and civil penalties and speed up hazard abatement. In addition, victims of accidents and their family members would be provided greater rights during investigations and enforcement actions.

Rhinehart told the committee that in the 2009, the median initial total penalty for violations related to a fatality  penalty was:

a paltry $6,750, with the median penalty after settlement just $5,000. Many of these are fatalities caused by well-recognized hazards:  trench cave-ins, failure to lock-out dangerous equipment, and lack of machine guarding.

These are not meaningful penalties—they are a slap on the wrist.  Penalties of this sort are clearly not sufficient to change employer behavior, improve workplace conditions, or deter future violations.

The provisions strengthening the OSH Act were taken from the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067), which was introduced earlier this year and has already been the subject of House and Senate hearings. Rhinehart urged Congress to act on the other provisions in the bill, including:

extending OSHA coverage to millions of state and local public employees who are not (and have never been) covered by the law, and enhancing worker and union rights in the enforcement process.

For a look at the group opposed to strengthening mine and workplace safety laws—the Coalition for Workplace Safety—take a look at Celeste Monforton’s post today on the Pump Handle blog. She blows the cover off the pro-safety sounding from corporate front group, finding it’s another well-funded attempt by the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce, and more than 20 other industry groups to oppose fundamental improvements to the 40-year-old OSHA law.

This article was originally published on AFL-CIO NOW Blog.

About The Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.