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Labor: New Mine Safety Plans Fail to Measure Up

by Brendan Coyne

Feb. 3, 2006 – Earlier this week, the governor of West Virginia and the federal agency in charge of mine safety both announced plans to make sure coal mines are safer. The announcements come about after eighteen coal-mine workers have perished at work already this year. Workplace safety experts and labor groups assailed the plans as unlikely to solve the problem.

Wednesday, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin called for a halt to operations at every coal mine in the state so that mine operators and workers could assess and ensure that the mines are in compliance with government rules. In addition to calling for mine inspections at the beginning of each shift, Manchin requested inspection assistance from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the federal agency charged with overseeing workplace safety efforts for the nation’s mines.

Manchin’s announcement was followed by a call from MSHA itself for all mine operators in the nation to delay the start of their workweek for one hour Monday. Workers, company officials and managers are supposed to use the hour to discuss mine safety issues, the statement said.

Other public officials have offered proposed solutions to what is increasingly being seen as a crisis in workplace safety, but worker advocates maintain that the efforts are heavily slanted in favor of businesses and will ultimately do little to fix problems faced by employees.

As part of a number of tax cuts approved last night, the Senate opted to reward companies that adhere to the spirit and letter of workplace safety law with tax breaks on the training, equipment and supplies necessary to comply with existing regulations.

In introducing mine-safety legislation yesterday, the West Virginia congressional delegation called for tougher regulations, noting that existing federal laws grant the Labor Secretary the authority to make the desired changes.

"Instead, as the unfortunate incidents of last month at the Sago and Melville mines in West Virginia underscored, current Mine Safety and Health Administration regulations and policies are woefully inadequate on several fronts, such as their neglect of advances in technologies that could be deployed to increase the survival of coal miners involved in emergency situations," the delegation said in a statement. "The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 2006 mandates action to end the status quo."

Tuesday, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) announced that it was directing committees to inspect every union mine in West Virginia. In a subsequent statement, UMWA said it welcomed the MSHA call for a national "stand-down," but cautioned: "This is no substitute for continuing and thorough mine safety inspections by local union safety committees and federal and state inspectors."

The new push for mine safety coincides with Senate committee confirmation hearings for President Bush’s pick to head the MSHA, Richard Stickler. At the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearings, Stickler, who formerly headed Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Deep Mine Safety and worked as a mine company official, declined to voice support for tougher regulations, maintaining that existing laws are enough.

"The vast majority of accidents I’ve studied are the result of a failure to observe the laws," Stickler told the committee. According to an article published by the Society for Human Resource Management, Stickler said he is open to increasing fine amounts and would study safety reforms suggested after the Sago Mine tragedy.

Bush nominated Stickler to the post last September, at the same time he tapped a lawyer with an anti-union law firm to head up the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Labor groups say the appointments demonstrate the administration’s pro-business bent.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the February 3, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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