Byrd bill’s reforms will ensure worker safety

I traveled to Beckley, W.Va., in May to hear the personal stories of families and coal miners who described working conditions at the Upper Big Branch mine where 29 miners were killed in a massive explosion just a few weeks earlier.

The testimony was chilling.

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These miners, hardened from decades of underground mining, described how this tragedy left them too fearful to work deep underground again. Miners thought twice about complaining that they were not getting enough air to breath below ground because they feared retaliation. Stanley “Goose” Stewart, a miner who survived the explosion, testified that despite protections in the law for whistleblowers, “we knew that we’d be marked men and the management would look for ways to fire us.”

Proud miners were so paralyzed with fear and intimidation that no one spoke up about violations of mine-safety laws.

This fear has no place in a modern workplace. It allows operators, such as Massey Energy, who have repeatedly put coal production first and the lives of miners second. Without stronger mine-safety laws and protections that empower miners, the deadly behavior of unscrupulous operators will not change.

Miners are not the only workers in the crosshairs every day. Workers suffer from weak protections in other industries, as well. From the fires that ripped through the Imperial Sugar refinery where 14 were killed, to the Slim Jim factory where an explosion killed four and injured 40, to the refinery workers who were trapped in a wall of fire at the Tesoro refinery in Washington, preventable tragedies have left a trail of carnage. In many cases, a long history of violations preceded these tragedies, but nothing changed.

The good news is that workplace fatalities can be prevented. Dying on the job is not inevitable in coal mining or anywhere else. However, lobbyists who declare that holding companies accountable for needlessly killing workers is a job killer are blocking common-sense reforms. For the 14 workers killed each day on the job, the lack of adequate safety protections are job killers.

More than three decades ago, America’s miners were promised meaningful safety and health protections. The same promise was made to employees in most other workplaces when the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970.

Since these laws were enacted, worker deaths have declined dramatically, providing stark proof that stronger worker safety laws save lives. Yet, each year on the job, more than 5,000 workers are killed, and 4 million workers are injured. This is flatly unacceptable. 

That’s why there should be little delay in enacting the important reforms contained in the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act, which is under consideration in both the House and Senate. While some responsible coal operators and other businesses have worked to bridge differences, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is hoping to kill this legislation by mischaracterizing its provisions.

These modest reforms will bring our nation’s mine-safety laws up to date. They provide regulators with tools to deal with mine operators who have a pattern of violations; hold accountable executives who knowingly and recklessly put workers in harm’s way; and give workers a voice on the job by strengthening out-of-date whistleblower laws.

Penalties for putting workers in danger are weak and often considered merely the cost of doing business, especially compared to other federal laws. For instance, maliciously harassing a wild burro can bring twice as much prison time as killing a worker after willfully violating the law.

This is shameful. To deter bad behavior, the Byrd bill makes penalties for health and safety violations meaningful. In a country as great as ours, ensuring that workers can return home safe and healthy after a hard day’s work shouldn’t be controversial.

None of us who went to Beckley can forget the pleas of the family members and miners. Every witness delivered the same message: Congress must pass laws to protect our nation’s coal miners. After the 2006 Sago and Aracoma mine tragedies, Sen. Byrd said that “if we are truly a moral nation…[then those] moral values must be reflected in government agencies that are charged with protecting the lives of our citizens.”

I agree.

Rep. Miller is the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee.