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Posts Tagged ‘Mine Safety and Health Administration’

MSHA Says Massey Blast Shows Need for Tougher Safety Laws

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Image: Mike HallAs we approach Tuesday, April 5, the first anniversary of the deadly blast at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) mine that killed 29 coal miners, the nation’s top mine safety official today called for tougher laws and bigger penalties for safety violators.

Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) chief Joe Main today told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee:

No mine operator should be risking the lives of its miners by cutting corners on health and safety. For those operators who do knowingly engage in such practices, we need to send a message that their actions will not be tolerated.

Main also called for stronger protections for miners who speak out about unsafe practices and conditions.

Miners know best the conditions in their mine. But miners are afraid to speak out because they fear they’ll lose their jobs.

He also said a full report on the blast is several months away, but MSHA will hold a public briefing in June. After the Upper Big Branch explosion, MSHA has increased its enforcement efforts, created new mine safety screening procedures and conduced 228 “impact” inspections at mines with poor safety records or other warning signs of problems.

He said the new screening procedures were put in place after officials discovered that a computer error had allowed Upper Big Branch to evade heightened scrutiny despite the pattern of violations system that is supposed to identify mines with continuing safety violations. Main urged Congress give MSHA more authority to shut down problem mines.

Legislation is still needed to fully protect our nation’s miners. This committee has never subscribed to the myth that mining fatalities are an inevitable aspect of the business. I am asking you to again stand up for miners and pass new and needed mine safety legislation.

Click here for his full testimony and a video of the entire hearing.

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. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

This blog originally appeared in blog.aflcio.org on March 31, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

MSHA Safety Crackdown on Troubled Mines Continues

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Image: Mike HallIn the latest round of stepped-up inspections of mines with a history of safety and health violations and other issues, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)  in November  issued 250 citations and other actions at 22 mines.

The new special impact inspections began after the April coal mine explosion at the Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) mine that killed 29 miners.

The mines set for tougher inspections include those with a poor history of complying with previous orders to correct unsafe conditions, or that have specific concerns, such as high numbers of violations or closure orders.

The inspections also focus on mines where there have been evasive tactics by mine management, such as advance notification of inspections that prevent inspectors from observing violations and mines with a high number of accidents, injuries, illnesses or fatalities. Says MSHA administrator Joe Main:

MSHA’s impact inspection program is helping to reduce the number of mines that consider egregious violation records a cost of doing business. We will continue using this important enforcement tool to protect the nation’s miners

MSHA conducted the November inspections at 12 coal mines, issuing 111 citations for safety violations and 11 orders for immediate correction. At 10 metal/non-metal mines, MSHA inspectors issued 113 citations and 11 orders for immediate action.

This article was originally posted 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.

House Hearing Focuses on Mine, Workplace Safety

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

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.

After 8 Years of Bush Neglect, Job Safety Gets New Boost from Obama, Solis

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Image: Mike HallA little more than a year after taking office, the Obama administration and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have taken significant steps to repair the damage to workplace safety and health left behind after eight years of the Bush administration.

With Workers Memorial Day (April 28) approaching, this is a good time to look at the progress made since the “the new sheriff” hit town. (Click here for fact sheets, fliers, posters, stickers and other Workers Memorial Day materials.)

As Esther Kaplan writes in the Nation:

During the Bush years, the Department of Labor became a cautionary tale about what happens when foxes are asked to guard the henhouse.

For eight years under the Bush Administration, corporate officials and management representatives headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Bush’s first MSHA head, David Lauriski, was chief safety officer at Emery Mining’s Wilberg, Utah, mine in 1984 when an explosion killed 27 coal miners. The blast,  says Kaplan, “was later attributed to numerous violations at the mine.”

The owners, it turned out, had been trying for a one-day production record…Seventeen years after the disaster, Lauriski became George W. Bush’s first mine safety chief, a perch from which he halted a dozen new safety regulations initiated under [the] Clinton [administration], advocating instead a more “collaborative” approach with industry.

Today, MSHA is headed up by Joe Main who began work in the mines when he was 19, became a local union safety committeeman, a safety inspector in the Mine Workers (UMWA) Safety and Health Department and eventually is director.

At OSHA, Bush’s last administrator, Edwin Foulke, was former partner at the notorious anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis. He so strongly opposed workplace safety and health laws The New York Times labeled him “an antiregulatory ideologue.”

Contrast Foulke with David Michaels, Obama’s choice as OSHA administrator. Michaels is an occupational safety and health expert, co-founder of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and epidemiologist at George Washington University.

Under Bush, OSHA and MSHA emphasized voluntary compliance programs over strong enforcement of workplace safety and health regulations. When they issued penalties, the employers often negotiated down the fines, which were negligible to begin with.

Now, both OSHA and MSHA have stepped up enforcement, assessing large penalties against employers with serious, repeated and willful violations. In October, OSHA levied the largest fine in its history-$87 million against BP Products for failing to correct the safety problems that caused a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured another 170 people at a Texas City oil refinery.

OSHA also is strengthening its enforcement program to focus more on repeated violators and to develop corporate-wide approaches to enforcement.  It’s launched a national investigation in the under reporting of injuries and employer practices that discourage workers from reporting job injuries.

During the eight-year run of the Bush administration, not only did OSHA and MSHA put the brakes on new safety and health rules laws in the pipeline when they took office, neither agency issued any new standard unless forced by the courts or Congress. OSHA is now moving forward with rules on silica, cranes and derricks, hazard communication, combustible dust and other workplace hazards.

The Bush administration presided over the repeal of the nation’s first ergonomics standard and made it so that OSHA’s hands tied to set a new ergonomics rule. But the agency now has proposed changes in the injury recordkeeping rule to reinstate a requirement, repealed by the Bush administration, for employers to identify musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on the workplace injury log.

At MSHA, new rules to limit exposure to coal dust and silica and to address increases in lung disease among miners are top priorities. Main also told Kaplan that MSHA will identify the top risk factors  that lead to mining deaths and injuries and help educate mining companies on how to eliminate them, but not as a substitute for enforcement.

We’ll provide assistance to the mine operators who do need it, .but never as a replacement to the enforcement tools. There was some confusion about that in recent years. I’m not confused about that.

Both safety agencies suffered drastic cuts in budget and personnel (especially in inspection and personnel) under the Bush administration. The Obama administration has restored those cuts and its FY 2011 budget includes some modest increases.

Employers’ rights appeared paramount in the Bush OSHA and MSHA. Today both agencies have established programs focusing on workers’ rights, including whistleblower and anti-discrimination protections and better worker access to fatality and injury.

The Obama administration also is backing congressional efforts to improve workplace safety and health laws, including the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067 and S. 1580), which toughens penalties, expands OSHA coverage to public-sector workers, strengthens anti-discrimination protections and expands workers’ rights.

It’s likely the same corporate and Republican forces that blocked improvements in workplace safety and health will fight this legislation and each and every new safety initiative.

So this Workers Memorial Day, along with honoring workers killed and injured on the job and demanding good, safe jobs with decent wages, health and retirement security and a voice on the job, workers will continue the fight for strong new safety and health protections.

*This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on March 18, 2009. 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. I 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. When my collar was still blue, I 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. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.

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