Feb. 7, 2006 – Recent actions by two separate federal agencies indicate that the deaths of eighteen miners over the past five weeks are pushing some in Washington to rethink worker safety policy. But occupational safety watchdogs warn that the initiatives, while promising, still face plenty of obstacles to funding and implementation.
In separate initiatives, the Department of Energy and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have moved to reduce workersâ€™ vulnerability to physical harm on the job â€“- and to punish companies that needlessly put employees at risk.
"We will use every tool at our disposal to go after operators that refuse to pay their penalties for mine safety violations," said MSHA acting head David Dye yesterday. The agency reported that it had filed injunctions against a Kentucky coal-mine operator for defaulting on several fines assessed against affiliated companies. The lawsuit alleges that Stanley Osborneâ€™s two mining companies, Misty Mountain Mining and Midgard Mining, have accumulated an excess of $200,000 in MSHA penalties since the 1980s.
Last week, the Energy Department also moved to tighten worker protections, announcing that it was strengthening its occupational-safety enforcement system and increasing the maximum penalties. Public interest watchdog Government Accountability Project (GAP) applauded the new rule, which would implement a congressional mandate held over from 2003.
"The Department of Energyâ€¦ has just completed a rule that, for the first time in 65 years, will make worker health and safety requirements enforceable at [the Departmentâ€™s] nuclear and non-nuclear facilities," GAP said. The group noted that "in some areas, the rule provides protections greater than" those imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
But applause from worker advocates may be short-lived. According to budget plans issued by the Bush administration yesterday, funding shortfalls may stymie government agencies charged with workplace safety training and enforcement budget shortfalls in the 2007 fiscal year.
The budget proposes modest increases in Department of Labor funding alongside cuts in discretionary Labor Department spending.
Funding would increase for OSHA by $11.2 million and for MSHA by $1.4 million over last year under the presidentâ€™s budget. However, staffing levels for both workplace-safety enforcement and oversight agencies would remain flat at 2,173 and 2,136 full-time positions, respectively.
As workplace deaths are approaching 6,000 over the past year, the administration is seeking, for the second year in a row, to scrap its only training program aimed at empowering workers and developing better practices in the field of occupational health and safety.
As reported previously by The NewStandard, the Susan Harwood Training Program funds research on worker health and safety and provides modest grants to grassroots workplace-safety training programs for labor unions, immigrant workers and others. The proposed funding reduction would eliminate the $10.1 million that supported the program in fiscal year 2006.
In a statement defending the cut, the Labor Department said that the de-funding of the program would not undermine outreach and training for employers and workers. "OSHA provides direct outreach activities and training on important safety and health issues in a variety of ways other than through training grants," the statement said.
In a similarly double-edged funding blueprint, the Department of Energy budget proposal contains a 6 percent increase in funding for Environment, Safety and Health, the program under which the proposed new workplace-safety policy falls, while it eliminates funding for the federal research and education branch the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.