Workplace Safety Bill: Protecting Miners and Other Workers

Earlier this spring, an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 workers in West Virginia. The tragedy is the deadliest mine accident in four decades, and has prompted legislative debate over measures to toughen workplace safety and increase penalties for all of the nation's employers for what the Idaho Statesman claims would be only the second time in 40 years.

Massey Energy

According to the Statesman, Massey Energy coal mines received hundreds of citations in 2009, including orders to evacuate workers over safety concerns. One employee reportedly told lawmakers that Massey has a history of irresponsibility, claiming that his years of employment with the company has "taken coal mining back to the early 1900s using three principles: fear, intimidation and propaganda." Don Blankenship, Massey chairman and chief executive, stated in a Senate hearing that Massey never has and never will place profits over safety.

The Obama administration ordered a preliminary investigative report, which found that the blast is likely to have been caused by preventable buildup of methane gas and coal dust. The report also indicated that the citations issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration at the Upper Big Branch mine were both more numerous than average and for more serious violations, says the Statesman. Also following the April explosion, the president directed federal mine health and safety officials to crack down on coal mines with repeated serious safety violations, urging Congress to fix safety laws that are "riddled with loopholes."

Proposed Changes to Safety Rules

Nine days after taking the oath of office, Senator Carte Goodwin joined Senator John Rockefeller in introducing the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act of 2010, according to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Named for Sen. Goodwin's predecessor, who worked with Sen. Rockefeller on the elements of the bill, it is aimed at honoring the victims of the West Virginia mine explosion.

Among other things, the proposed legislation prohibits employers from firing employees who report unsafe conditions. The House Education and Labor Committee heard testimony from miners and their family regarding shortcomings in miner protections, and threats and intimidation of miners who brought up safety concerns to their bosses. It would also increase penalties against employers who violate safety policies from $70,000 to as much as $250,000, reports the Statesman.

According to EHS Today, the bill also extends similar protections to all workplaces, in response to a number of recent deadly explosions at refineries, power plants and processing facilities. Rep. George Miller said that every day 14 workers do not come home from work and that, while their deaths may not make headlines the same way trapped miners do, their lives and limbs are no less valuable.

Support for Proposed Changes

The Statesman says that proponents of the bill are pushing for a quick vote, claiming that the costs of work-related accidents and illnesses outweigh the expenses of stricter regulations. Representative George Miller says the current law is not working, and that in fact the violations from the Massey mine even exceeded the violations of the 1970s.

Sen. Rockefeller explained that legislators owe it to the miners and their families to fix the process for safety enforcement at mines with repeated violations. In a recent press release, he said, "I've fought my entire career to make sure that hard working Americans can go to jobs without fearing for their safety and I will not stop until this is a reality."

Opposition to Proposed Changes

Critics of the proposed bill say it goes beyond its claimed objective of improving mine safety and dramatically reshapes workplace safety policies, reports the Statesman. They claim the legislation would drive up costs for employers and make job creation more difficult.

Representative John Kline said while he appreciated the urgency of the supporters, he would urge to act only as quickly as is prudent to protect miners.

The Statesman states that there is a backlog of roughly 16,000 cases brought by mining companies - involving 89,000 violations and more than $195 million in fines. The volume of these cases has clogged the appeals process. Workers who have been injured on the job or in the scope of their employment should meet with a personal injury lawyer to discuss their injury and what claims for recovery they may have. While monetary compensation cannot take away injuries, demanding compensation from responsible parties can put the injured worker's mind at rest, allowing him or her to focus on healing.