Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Study Finds Unionized Coal Mines Substantially Safer

May 25th, 2011 | Mike Hall

Image: Mike Hallnew study shows that miners in unionized coal mines are far less likely to be killed or injured on the job than miners in nonunion operations. The independent study funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that “unionization predicts an 18-33 percent drop in traumatic injuries and a 27-68 percent drop in fatalities.”

The comprehensive study, conducted by Stanford University law professor Alison D. Morantz,  the John A. Wilson Distinguished Faculty Scholar at Stanford Law School, looked at coal mine fatality and injury statistics from 1993 to 2008.

Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts says the study “quantifies the profound differences in safety underground coal miners experience when working union versus working nonunion.”

He points out that recent mining disasters, including the blast at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) mine that killed 29 miners last year, the Crandall Canyon (Utah) disaster that killed nine in 2007 and the Sago explosion in 2006 that killed 12 miners, have all been in nonunion mines.

The simple truth is that union mines are safer mines, and this study proves that.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a third-generation coal miner, says he knows “firsthand the vital importance of workers having a voice on the job through their union.”

This study confirms what working people have known all along:  Unions, strong laws, and enforcement are crucial to protecting the lives of our nation’s miners. With all we know today and with all the avenues of prevention available, there is simply no need for even one life to be lost on the job.

Rep. George Miller (R-Calf.) ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee and long-time mine safety advocate says the study shows that

when workers have a voice in the mine through their union, they are safer. In union mines, workers are empowered to point out dangerous conditions to inspectors without fear of retaliation from management. By giving miners the support they need to speak out, unions can save miners’ lives.

The study’s findings suggest that the union safety effect may even have “intensified” since the early 1990s as the UMWA instituted a more comprehensive safety program and expanded training for union safety experts on the local and national levels.

Roberts says that while the study shows union mines are safer, tragedies can still happen, such as the 2001 explosion at the Jim Walters #5 mine in Brookwood, Ala., that killed 13 miners.

We in the UMWA learned hard lessons in that tragedy and others that preceded it. We took steps to provide better protection for our members, and this study demonstrates that those steps are working. We will continue to work as hard as we can to keep the mines where UMWA members work the safest in the world.

Click here for the full report.

This article originally appeared in the AFL-CIO blog on May 25, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

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 has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent.

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