Protections for Miners Long Overdue

coal loader

Three years ago, 29 miners were killed in the infamous Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia. Regrettably, there have been few substantial changes to prevent future mining tragedies since then.  In fact, eight other miners were killed on the job just this year.

Efforts to better protect miners with new legislation have been repeatedly blocked. Last month, the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act was introduced for the third time.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) describes the hurdles this urgently needed legislation faces and the reasons behind them:

… many in Congress refuse to enact legislation that would impose more regulations – of any kind – on businesses. Meanwhile, miners continue to die on the job.

In West Virginia specifically, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last year helped usher through the legislative process a state law that would implement tougher methane-monitoring requirements for underground coal mines, increase fines for violators, and require close supervision of apprentice miners. But these provisions have been delayed repeatedly as the coal industry tries to water down the rules.

And on the agency side, a recent audit from the U.S. Labor Department Office of Inspector General praised the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for “significant progress” in implementing recommendations from an internal agency review before the Upper Big Branch tragedy. But, as the Charleston Gazette noted, the agency has implemented just over half of the recommendations, and does not have target dates set for much of the second half.

Just over half of the recommendations from a review before the explosion have been implemented.

As MSHA stalls on other recommendations, miners are paying the price.

An independent report found that the explosion was entirely preventable if proper safety precautions had been taken. Massey Energy blatantly disregarded workers’ safety to maximize profit. The proposed legislation would help to hold negligent employers like Massey Energy accountable and would provide mine regulators the tools they need to ensure that miners are protected from on-the-job hazards.

Agencies like MSHA need more authority and greater resources to do their jobs, and companies like Massey Energy – the coal giant that owned the Upper Big Branch Mine – and their top officials cannot be allowed to continue to skirt the law, shortchange miners' safety, and avoid taking responsibility when workers are injured or killed.  Reforms like the Mine Safety Protection Act are a step in the right direction, and Congress should take quick action on this legislation.

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