Nation’s miner welfare is paramount and must be industry’s first priority

On April 27, soon after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, Jeffrey Harris, a former miner at the site, testified before the Senate committee that I chair. Mr. Harris described how the company lied to the employees about safety conditions in the mine, demanded the employees underreport injuries and instructed employees to interfere with federal mine inspectors who visited the site to review safety conditions. Mr. Harris explained that workers were desperate for a good-paying job, and they feared they would be singled out and fired if they complained. In the end, Mr. Harris quit his job because the safety conditions were intolerable. He knew what the country was about to learn: The mine at Upper Big Branch was a disaster waiting to happen, and in some of our nation’s mines, American workers were playing Russian roulette by going to work.

When my fellow lawmakers and I met with the families of the fallen miners, we promised them their loved ones would not have died in vain, and we would learn from these tragedies. One undeniable lesson is that there are too many bad actors who put profits over worker safety, and we need stronger laws to target these irresponsible operators and keep them from putting miners’ lives at risk. 

Of course, there are many decent and conscientious people operating mines in this country who are committed to putting safety first. But we cannot allow the unscrupulous to hide behind the good intentions of law-abiding citizens. Raising the bar for safety in this very dangerous industry is in everyone’s best interest. Miners shouldn’t have to fear for their lives when they go to work in the morning, and responsible operators shouldn’t have to compete against others who do not play by the rules.

That’s why I have reached out to colleagues on both sides of the aisle to work on mine-safety legislation that would put the focus of everyone in the industry back where it belongs: on the safety and welfare of the miner. I hope that by working together, we can pass a bill that honors the memory of the fallen miners at Upper Big Branch and serves as a fitting tribute to the Senate’s champion of mine safety, the late Sen. Byrd of West Virginia, who was so dedicated to this cause.

It will not be enough to tinker around the margins — this legislation must be aggressive enough to ensure that every mine lives up to its responsibility to create a safe working environment. I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle agree that where the Department of Labor lacks the tools to enforce the law, we should empower them. Where penalties are too weak to encourage compliance, we should strengthen them. Where workers are silenced for raising safety concerns, we should defend them. Our paramount goal must be to re-establish miner safety as the first priority of the industry.

Since the passage of the Miner Act in 1977, we have made great strides in improving mine safety, and countless lives have been saved. But we still have a long way to go. Tragedies such as Upper Big Branch are preventable — while we don’t know yet what caused this most recent disaster, we know that we should never again ask miners to work in a place with such an appalling safety record. No miner should die for a paycheck, and we should not rest until we know that all our mines are safe places to work.

Sen. Harkin is the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.