Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Mine Safety’

Trump took credit for airline safety in 2017. What about the surge in coal miner deaths?

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

President Donald Trump is taking credit for what a new study is calling the safest year on record for commercial aviation. The president, however, is refusing to take responsibility for what his mine safety agency is saying was a year where almost twice as many coal mine workers died on the job than the final year of the Obama administration.

On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted: “Since taking office, I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news — it was just reported that there were zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”

Over the past 20 years, the average number of airliner accidents has shown a steady and persistent decline, thanks to “safety-driven efforts” by international aviation organizations and the aviation industry, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an independent research group. Nowhere in the analysis did the researchers mention efforts by the Trump administration as a reason for the airline safety improvement.

In the coal mining sector, data from the Trump administration’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the federal government’s mine safety agency, show coal mining deaths nearly doubled in 2017. But unlike the aviation statistics, Trump isn’t taking any personal responsibility for the coal mining deaths. What’s more, he tapped a former coal executive with a record of safety violations to head MSHA.

The death of a coal miner in Fayette County, West Virginia, on December 29 brought the total number of U.S. coal mining fatalities in 2017 to 15, according to MSHA’s website. Eight of the 15 coal mining deaths last year occurred in West Virginia. The remaining deaths occurred in Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. In the previous year, under President Barack Obama, the coal industry saw its lowest number of coal mining fatalities to date, with eight deaths recorded across the country.

A number of factors could have led to the rise in coal mining deaths. The nation saw an uptick in coal production last year. Estimated coal production for the first 11 months of 2017 totaled 719 million short tons, 54 million short tons, or 8 percent, more than production for the same period in 2016. For 2018, though, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is forecasting a drop in production due to a decrease in exports and slower domestic demand.

Employment in the coal mining sector reached about 51,700 in September, about 3,000 more than the year before. But since then, the sector’s job numbers have declined slightly each month.

Under the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress, mining companies could be taking more risks under the assumption that enforcement will be more lax. The House of Representatives wants to cut MSHA’s coal enforcement budget by $11 million, or almost 7 percent, after cutting the division’s budget by $7.9 million in FY 2017.

During his presidential campaign, Trump reached out to coal miners, telling them that he would bring jobs back to their communities, despite widespread consensus that coal will continue to decline in the long run. In return, the miners have put a lot of faith in Trump to fulfill his promise.

As part of his focus on coal, Trump selected David Zatezalo, a former coal mining executive who has faced criticism over his company’s safety record, to serve as the head of MSHA. Zatezalo, who was confirmed by the Senate in November, retired in late 2014 as chairman of coal producer Rhino Resources after serving in various top posts at the company.

Zatezalo was head of Rhino Resources when the company was issued two “pattern of violations” letters from MSHA over safety and health issues at its mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. At the time, the Obama administration was seeking to improve enforcement of mine safety following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

Last month, the Trump administration also announced plans to examine whether it should weaken rules aimed at fighting black lung among coal miners, a move the administration says could create a “less burdensome” regulatory environment for coal companies.

Most coal miners understand the increased dangers they face when the government steps back from safety enforcement. But the miners also see limited employment alternatives, unless they choose to uproot their families and relocate.

“We have all witnessed friends and family fight in vain for compensation after suffering from permanent injuries and black lung,” Nick Mullins, an author and former coal miner, wrote in an op-ed for HuffPost last month. “Few people seem to realize the lack of choices miners face. They do not realize that many miners would jump at the chance to earn a decent living without risking their life and sacrificing their health.”

This article was originally published on January 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress. Send him tips at mhand@americanprogress.org

The Price for Killing Workers Must be Prison for CEOs

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Every 12 days, a member of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), or one of their non-union co-workers, is killed on the job. Every 12 days. And it’s been that way for years.

These are horrible deaths. Workers are crushed by massive machinery. They drown in vats of chemicals. They’re poisoned by toxic gas, burned by molten metal. The company pays a meaningless fine. Nothing changes. And another worker is killed 11 days later.

Of course, it’s not just members of the USW. Nationally, at all workplaces, one employee is killed on the job every other hour. Twelve a day.

These are not all accidents. Too many are foreseeable, preventable, avoidable tragedies. With the approach of April 28, Workers Memorial Day 2017, the USW is seeking in America what workers in Canada have to prevent these deaths. That is a law holding supervisors and corporate officials criminally accountable and exacting serious prison sentences when workers die on the job.

Corporations can take precautions to avert workplace deaths. Too often they don’t. That’s because managers know if workers are killed, it’s very likely the only penalty will be a small fine. To them, it’s just another cost of doing business, a cost infinitely lower than that paid by the dead workers and their families.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the incident that led Canada to establish federal corporate criminal accountability. It was the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 workers. The Plymouth, Nova Scotia, miners had sought help from the United Steelworkers to organize, in part because of deplorable conditions the company refused to remedy, including accumulation of explosive coal dust and methane gas.

Nova Scotia empaneled a commission to investigate. Its report, titled The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, condemns the mine owner, Curragh Resources Inc., for placing production – that is profits – before safety.

The report says Curragh “displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as wimps.” In fact, Curragh openly thwarted safety requirements. For example, the investigators found, “Methane detection equipment at Westray was illegally foiled in the interests of production.”

The calamity occurred because Curragh callously disregarded its duty to safeguard workers, the investigators said. “The fundamental and basic responsibility for the safe operation of an underground coal mine, and indeed of any industrial undertaking, rests clearly with management,” the report says. 

The USW pressed for criminal charges, and prosecutors indicted mine managers. But the case failed because weak laws did not hold supervisors accountable for wantonly endangering workers.

The Steelworkers responded by demanding new legislation, a federal law that would prevent managers from escaping liability for killing workers. It took a decade, but the law, called the Westray Act, passed in 2003. Under it, bosses face unlimited fines and life sentences in prison if their recklessness causes a worker death.

Over the past 13 years, since the law took effect in 2004, prosecutors have rarely used it. Though thousands of workers have died, not one manager has gone to jail.

The first supervisor charged under the Westray Act escaped a prison sentence when he agreed to plead guilty under a provincial law and pay a $50,000 fine. This was the penalty for a trench collapse in 2005 that killed a worker. There are many methods to prevent the common problem of trench cave-ins, but bosses routinely send workers into the holes without protection.

In 2008, the company Transpavé in Quebec was charged under the Westray Law after a packing machine crushed one of its workers to death. There was a criminal conviction and $100,000 fine. But no one was jailed.

In another case, a landscape contractor was criminally convicted in 2010 for a worker’s death, but the court permitted the contractor to serve the two-year sentence at home with curfews and community service.

Soon, however, prison may become more than a theoretical possibility. A Toronto project manager was sentenced last year to three and a half years in prison for permitting workers to board a swing stage, which is a scaffold that was suspended from an apartment building roof, without connecting their chest harnesses to safety lines. The scaffold collapsed, and four workers plummeted 13 stories to their deaths. A fifth worker survived the fall with severe injuries. Another worker, who had clicked onto a safety line, was unscathed.

Before the project began, the manager took a safety course in which the life-and-death consequences of unfailingly utilizing safety lines was emphasized.

The manager described asking the site foreman, as the foreman and the workers climbed onto the scaffold at the end of the work day on Dec. 24, 2009, why there were not enough safety lines for all of the workers. When the foreman told him not to worry about it, the project manager, who was in charge of the job, did nothing. Seconds later, the scaffold floor split in half, dumping the foreman and four other men without safety lines to the ground.

The prosecutor said the manager’s failure to stop the scaffolding from descending with unsecured workers demonstrated “wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of the workers.” The judge said the manager’s position conferred on him the responsibility for safeguarding the workers and that his conduct constituted criminal negligence under the terms of the Westray Law.

The manager has appealed the sentence. The worker who connected himself to the lifeline said the manager asked him that day to lie about what happened because, the manager told him, “I have a family.”  Of course, that ignores completely the families of the dead men.

It is what far too many bosses and CEOs do. They believe their lives are precious and workers’ are not. That’s why so many supervisors defy worker safety rules.

In most U.S. workplace deaths, the company suffers nothing more than a fine. Last year, for example, an Everett, Washington State, landscape company paid $100,000 for the death of a 19-year-old worker crushed in an auger on his second day on the job. His father, Alan Hogue, told The Seattle Times, “It’s just a drop in the bucket. It’s like fining me $10 for shooting a neighbor.” The state cited the company for 16 serious and willful safety violations.

Federal criminal penalties for killing a worker in the United States are so low that they are insulting. The maximum sentence under OSHA is six months; under MSHA, one year. Prosecutors almost never bring such cases, since the penalties are so low and the burden of proof so high.

U.S. supervisors have gone to jail under state criminal laws, though it’s rare. A New York construction foreman was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced in 2016 to at least 1 year behind bars for sending a 22-year-old worker into an unsecured trench and for failing to stop work when an engineer warned it was too dangerous. The trench collapsed minutes later.

In a similar case, the owner of a Fremont, Calif., construction company and his project manager were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison after a trench collapsed on a worker. The January 2012 incident occurred three days after a building inspector ordered work to stop because the excavation lacked shoring. The manager ignored the order.

“These men, the workers, were treated like their lives didn’t matter,” Deputy District Attorney Bud Porter told a reporter at the time of conviction.

The only way to make workers’ lives matter is to make prison a real possibility for CEOs and supervisors. Lethal greed must be tempered by frightening ramifications. Fines are no threat.  Only prison is. America needs its own Westray Law and aggressive enforcement.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on April 27, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

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 Cracks Down on Repeat Safety Offenders

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Image: Mike HallIn a continued crackdown on coal mines with histories of serious safety and health violations, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has issued notices that 13 mines will be placed in a special stepped-safety enforcement program unless mine owners begin immediate corrective actions.

The mines were notified earlier this month that they were on the verge of being put in what is known as pattern of violations (POV) status because of chronic and persistent safety and health violations uncovered during inspections in the past 12 months. A POV status brings the mine under more intense scrutiny and gives MSHA broader power to stop mining operations and withdraw miners.

These notifications are the first MSHA has issued since it began reforming the pattern of violations program after the Bush administration, at the urging of the coal industry and with former coal industry executives running MSHA, changed the rules to make it harder to crack down on pattern violators. Says MSHA administrator Joe Main:

I have been saying since I arrived at MSHA that the POV system is broken. This screening represents a positive step forward, but it won’t be the only step. POV is on MSHA’s rulemaking agenda, and there are also statutory changes pending before Congress that would further improve the system.

The mines notified by MSHA had an elevated rate of “significant and substantial” (S&S) violations and have been subject to closure orders, including closure orders for serious issues such as failing to correct violations after MSHA cites them. MSHA has established S&S violation rate-reduction goals for each mine that received a potential POV notification. If they do not meet those reduction targets, the mines will be placed in the POV program. Says Main:

Along with impact inspections and injunction actions, POV represents an important enforcement method for MSHA to change the behavior of mine operators who don’t take seriously the health and safety of miners.

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.

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