Just before the July 4 recess, Representative George Miller, Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced the Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010. Recent explosions at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, Tesoro’s Anacortes (WA) refinery, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, and U.S. Steel’s coke oven in Clairton (PA), highlight the life-threatening hazards that American workers face on a daily basis. Despite these hazards—and the myriad other less serious or even chronic hazards that don’t make headlines—workers continue to do their jobs day in and day out.
Contrast these workers’ diligence with that of certain members of Congress, who, in advance of today’s committee vote on the Miner Safety and Health Act, have said that they want to hold off on legislating until they see the official reports on the causes of the Upper Big Branch explosion. Sure, official reports on that explosion will reveal important details about exactly what caused that particular disaster, notable for its severity and harrowing death toll. But as MSHA proved with its five-day “inspection blitz” of 57 underground coal mines in April, miners continue to work in conditions that we know are hazardous. The problem isn’t that we don’t understand the hazards that lead to explosions or other dangerous conditions, it’s that companies are choosing not to comply with the standards that would protect their workers. In just three days, MSHA issued more than 1,500 citations for violations of federal mine health and safety standards. MSHA had to order a halt to operations at six mines in Kentucky because of rampant violations. Clearly, economics—not workers’ safety—is the driving force for these companies’ decisions about compliance with federal law.
The Miner Safety and Health Act is designed to alter the current economics of noncompliance, where the penalties for violating worker safety protections are too often seen as just the cost of doing business. Among other things, the law would increase penalties, force mining companies to fix workplace hazards while they contest citations, and give whistleblowers a right to sue employers on their own behalf when the government’s whistleblower protection agency works too slowly. The bill is a systemic response to systemic problems. Waiting for official reports about the specific causes of one disaster will only shift the debate toward piecemeal reforms that will leave millions working in the same dangerous conditions without the full array of new protections afforded by the bill as introduced.