The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Mine Tragedy Highlights Decay of Regulations, Enforcement

by Brendan Coyne

The federal government and even the AFL-CIO have shifted attention away from workplace safety concerns at the national level in recent years, and labor says fines are just a slap on the wrist.

Jan. 5, 2006 – While experts and government officials begin investigating the West Virginia mine accident that killed twelve men, organized labor groups and their allies are calling for renewed government action on workplace safety.

The Bush administration has weakened mine safety enforcement during its tenure. Meanwhile, the nation’s largest labor federation has itself cut funds for health and safety advocacy and training.

As The NewStandard reported earlier this week, labor groups have criticized the Bush administration for cutting staff at the Mine Safety and Health Administration – the federal agency in charge of inspecting and enforcing mine safety.

Bush appointees have also eliminated regulations designed to protect miners. For instance, David Lauriski, a former mining-company official who was appointed to head the MSHA in 2001, altered a rule requiring mines to have at least two separate exit paths. The regulation is one of seventeen aimed at making mining less dangerous that the MSHA has undone since 2001, according to the government watchdog OMB Watch.

United Mine Workers of America Secretary-Treasurer Dan Kane told CNN yesterday that when considering official’s commitment to enforcement, it’s important to "look at the level of violations, the number of unwarrantable failures that were issued," but also "the amount of the fines."

According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) website, the agency issued 208 separate citations to the Sago mine totaling just under $25,000 in 2005. A spokesperson for the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Safety and Health told the Associated Press that it had slapped owners of the mine with 144 citations of its own last year. Both the state and federal citations mark an increase over the previous year.

"In many cases," Kane told CNN, "fines are issued that amount to what you and I may pay for a speeding ticket out on the Beltway. Fines have to be incentives to enforce the law. We can't allow them to become just another cost of doing business to the coal company."

Of last year’s Sago fines, most were for amounts less than $100, with a handful for amounts over $200, according to MSHA records. A single November 2005 inspection netted five separate violations of mine-roof regulations, including a $440 fine for failing to properly vent methane and dust particles. In a search of data dating to the beginning of 2004, such ventilation fines reappear frequently and account for many of the larger fines.

Methane and other particles commonly found in coal mines are known to be highly explosive in small concentrations.

Improper equipment maintenance and fire-suppression equipment violations were also prevalent at Sago over the past two years, with the last earning Sago its largest-assessed penalty during the period examined by TNS: $878 in April 2004, a fine that has yet to be paid.

According to the most-recent complete national data, MSHA issued 64,635 citations in 2004 for a total of $17 million at mines throughout the nation. Of those, just 59 were for amounts the Administration terms "high-dollar," meaning $10,000 or more, with the largest fine being $38,500. As of last night, only three of those 59 fines had been paid, for a total of $33,300.

In press statements, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and acting MSHA head David Dye said MSHA is undertaking an investigation into the explosion. Dye stated that the investigation "will evaluate all aspects of the accident and response, including compliance with all federal health and safety standards, and how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners' conditions."

No investigation by an independent body – and no inquiry into the MSHA’s prior dealings with the Sago mine – has been announced.

Labor advocates have long accused the federal government of generally failing to take workers’ health and safety seriously, noting that the number of workers killed or injured in the job in the US remains high.

According to the most recently available numbers from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), work-related incidents in the US took the lives of 5,559 workers and left another 4.4 million injured in 2003. The governmental department charged with overseeing labor-safety issues reported inspecting 23,625 incidents and over 50,000 hazardous conditions in 2004 through its offices and state programs it funds.

While the federal government eased mine safety regulations, the nation’s largest conglomerate of unions, the AFL-CIO, controversially shuttered its own organization’s health-and-safety office last year, cutting staff and folding it into a larger government-affairs office, as TNS reported in May.

"We don’t know if Monday’s mine explosion was related to the cited conditions, but it certainly is another in a long line of wake-up calls for increased government and industry attention to workers’ safety on the job. Regardless of the cause, our nation's safety and health laws must be strengthened," AFl-CIO president John Sweeney said in a statement issued before the fate of the twelve West Virginia miners was known.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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