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Protecting the Safety and Health of America's Miners and Workers

August 5, 2010

This year has been deadly for America’s workers.  Major disasters at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, the Tesoro Refinery in Washington State, the Kleen Energy Plant in Connecticut, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf and at other workplaces have claimed dozens and dozens of workers’ lives.  Too many employers—including Massey Energy and BP—are putting production and profits ahead of worker safety, costing workers their lives, limbs and health. 

In 2008, more than 5,200 workers were killed on the job, and more than a million more were seriously injured or diseased because of their jobs.  Every day an average of 14 workers die from job injuries, never to return home to their loved ones and families.

The nation’s job safety laws were enacted 40 years ago and have significantly reduced workplace deaths and injuries.  But the laws are out of date and are too weak, particularly for dealing with employers that flout the law and put workers in danger.   

In the wake of these disasters, legislation (H.R. 5663) has been introduced and is now moving through Congress to strengthen the Mine Safety and Health Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act to give the government stronger enforcement tools and to protect workers’ rights. The AFL-CIO strongly supports this important bill.

The Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 would strengthen the Mine Act as it applies to underground coal mines and other gassy underground mines. Mines that are repeat offenders and have a pattern of violations, like Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, would be subject to stricter oversight and enforcement. It would give MSHA the authority to seek injunctions to stop practices that pose a continuing hazard to miners and subpoena power in investigations.

As we saw with the Massey mine explosion, in too many workplaces, workers fear losing their jobs if they speak out.  H.R. 5663 would strengthen the anti-discrimination provisions of the Mine Act by providing for new civil and criminal penalties for retaliation against miners who report job safety hazards or injuries.  

To put teeth into enforcement, criminal penalties under the Mine Act for violations that put workers in danger would be made a felony, instead of a misdemeanor.  Individual corporate officers and directors could be held criminally liable for knowing violations that lead to death or serious harm, to help make top management accountable and give higher priority to worker safety.

H.R. 5663 would improve protections for workers at other dangerous workplaces by strengthening the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) to bring this law into conformance with other safety and environmental laws.

The civil penalties under OSHA haven’t been updated in 20 years and are too low to deter violations.  Last year the median penalty for worker fatalities was a paltry $5,000.  Criminal penalties under the OSHAct are just as weak; they are currently limited to cases in which a willful violation results in a worker’s death and are only a misdemeanor.  The penalty for harassing a wild burro on federal land is greater than for killing a worker.  This is wrong and needs to change.

H.R. 5663 would increase OSHA civil penalties for all violations and would set new, higher penalties for violations resulting in a worker’s death, so fines would be more than a slap on the wrist.  Criminal penalties would be made a felony.  Knowing violations that result in death or serious bodily injury could be subject to criminal prosecution, and individual corporate officials could be held criminally liable for these violations. 

Currently employers that contest OSHA citations and penalties are under no obligation to correct hazards while the challenge is pending, leaving workers at risk.  The new legislation would require that employers fix serious violations if they contest OSHA citations to make sure that workers are protected.   

Workers’ right to speak out and raise job safety concerns would be updated and strengthened by bringing the OSHAct’s whistleblower protections, which are now 40 years old, into line with other laws.  Workers would have a right to pursue their cases on their own if OSHA failed to act, and OSHA could order a worker put back to work based on a preliminary investigation.

True to form, employer trade associations, including the National Mining Association, Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Businesses are opposing this worker safety bill, claiming current laws are adequate and stronger requirements will be too costly.  In fact, this bill would only apply to employers that violate the law and put workers in danger, and it is targeted at the most serious violators. It is a measure that employers who care about job safety and comply with the law should fully support.

The nation has mourned the loss of the Massey miners, the BP oil rig workers, the Tesoro Refinery workers and others who have lost their lives on the job. Without action, these kinds of tragedies and unnecessary deaths are certain to continue. The AFL-CIO calls upon Congress to protect the lives of the nation’s miners and workers and act now to pass this bill.

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