By JOSHUA CLIFTON, a Chicago-based writer who covers workers' comp and disability issues
For more than two months, the harrowing tale of 33 men trapped 2,300 feet below ground in a mine near Copiapo, Chile, gripped the world. While the workers emerged largely unscathed after 69 days, the incident has increased concerns about mining conditions in the United States.
Mining is one of the most dangerous occupations. Yet despite high-profile disasters in recent years--such as the April explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 workers--reform isn't automatic.
Since 2009, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has received nearly 4,000 complaints from miners about hazardous conditions. Agency officials, however, are quick to note that the mining industry has significantly improved its safety practices since MSHA's creation under the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. There were 34 fatalities reported in the mining industry in calendar year 2009, down from 242 deaths in the agency's first year. In the past decade, the fatality rate among workers in all U.S. mines has fallen 58 percent.
The decline in mining-related deaths is a positive development, but Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said that much work needs to be done. The mine collapse in Chile should serve as a learning experience for lawmakers in the U.S, he warned.
"Every mine in the world, regardless of location and engineering challenges, must operate in an environment that puts the safety of miners above every other consideration," Roberts said.
This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Education & Labor approved the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010. The legislation would increase whistleblower protections for miners who speak up about dangerous conditions and increase civil and criminal penalties for employers who fail to fix chronic safety problems.
Some of the provisions of the bill would be extended to all employers, not just mining companies--a move that triggered a wave of opposition from House Republicans and has kept the legislation from advancing in the Senate. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., in remarks made in Congress in recent weeks, said that he is frustrated that the Senate has yet to produce a bipartisan bill.
"We have a responsibility to pass meaningful workplace safety legislation this year, and anything short of that is really unacceptable to me and should be to all of my colleagues in the Senate," he said.
The MSHA needs more regulatory power because it currently does not have subpoena power to proactively make mines safer, according to Rockefeller. West Virginia's subpoenas in the Upper Big Branch investigation, for example, are currently being challenged in court.
Even with the recent drop in mining-related deaths, the rate of fatal injuries in the coal-mining sector still remains nearly six times that of all private industry. In the past year, the National Council on Compensation Insurance has recommended increases in workers' comp rates for mining employers in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia--three large coal mining states--this despite the fact that, overall, the organization filed for double-digit rate decreases among all employers in those states.
With the upcoming elections in November and the power balance in Congress in flux, experts say that it is too soon to predict if comprehensive reforms to the mining industry will pass in the coming months. Speaking at the National Mining Association's recent executive board meeting, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said that the Obama administration has vowed to do everything in its power to improve mining safety.
"Let me end by saying what you probably already know--this is a new Labor Department and a new MSHA," she said. "There will be no free passes, no do-overs when it comes to mine safety."
Regardless of the outcome in the Senate, Roberts of the UMWA said little will change unless legislation is supported from the top and backed by action.
"Even the most stringent mine safety laws are only effective when regulators have the will and the means to rigorously enforce them," he said.
October 19, 2010
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