Mine safety markup veers into broader discussion on workplace protection

Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) echoed that message, arguing that the supporters of the broader OSHA reforms are “doing a disservice to miners” by “diluting” legislation intended to protect those working underground. Summarizing the Republican opposition, Thompson warned that tightening OSHA rules would hobble businesses still trying to emerge from the recession.

“We need to protect workers,” Thompson said, “but we need to do it in a balanced way that protects the workforce as well.”

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the chairman of the labor panel that wrote the legislation, rejected the GOP criticisms, noting that OSHA penalties have been updated only once in the last four decades. In the meantime, he added, 14 workers across the country are killed on the job each day.

“This committee,” he said, “can do both.”

Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), formerly a small-business owner, said the OSHA reforms would level the playing field to prevent “outlier” businesses from gaining competitive advantage by scrimping on worker safety. The changes, Wu said, are “good for just about every legitimate business that’s trying to do the right thing.”

It’s a problem, added Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), “when you can be fined more for messing with a donkey than a person in a factory.” He was referring to horse slaughter penalties. 

“We want to err on the side of working people,” Hare said.

A GOP amendment to repeal the OSHA reforms was shot down Wednesday along strict party lines.

Miller’s bill is a response to the April explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia that killed 29 miners and severely maimed a 30th. Several investigations are under way to determine the cause of the disaster, but mine safety experts suspect that a buildup of methane gas and accumulations of combustible coal dust contributed to the blast.

In the months prior to the accident, the operator of the Upper Big Branch was cited for hundreds of safety violations, many of which indicated problems with the mine’s ventilation system. The episode has led to numerous allegations that the mine owner, Virginia-based Massey Energy, fosters a culture of putting coal production above miner safety.

Miller’s proposal would hike penalties for mine operators who violate safety rules, expand whistleblower protections for miners who report hazards and grant subpoena power to federal inspectors conducting investigations into accidents.

Wednesday’s vote to send the bill to the floor was 30 to 17, strictly along party lines. The office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said House leaders have no plans to consider the bill at this point.

The bill has a difficult road ahead. Senate Democrats, reliant on support from GOP colleagues to overcome filibusters, aren’t expected to introduce their reform bill until the fall. Wednesday’s House debate lends some indication to what changes Senate GOP leaders will likely demand if Democrats want their backing. 

If that’s the case, Democrats can expect GOP leaders to insist that Congress wait for the results of the Upper Big Branch investigations before enacting legislative fixes.

“You should get all the information you possible can before you make a decision,” said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.). 

But Democrats say the reforms are needed now if lawmakers hope to prevent the next disaster. “We seem only to be able to move after a tragedy,” Miller said.

Miller dismissed the thought that House leaders should base their timeline on “the whims of the Senate.” Those, he said, “change every day.”