Hard hat dispute pits Amish miners against Labor Dept.

Hard hat dispute pits Amish miners against Labor Dept.

A Republican lawmaker is leading efforts to overturn a requirement that Amish workers wear hard hats at mining sites.

In a dispute that pits religious freedom against workplace safety, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) is pushing the Department of Labor to review a controversial policy that clashes with the Old Order Amish faith.

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The policy requires all employees to wear hard hats at mining sites to protect them from head injuries. But it comes in conflict with the strict Amish dress code.

Rather than defy their faith, at least six Amish employees have been forced to stop working in surface stone mines in Pennsylvania.

“We want to put our faith in God, not hard hats,” said Abe Byler, one of the Amish employees who works for Russell Stone Products in rural Grampian, Pa.

The Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) defended the policy in a letter to Thompson this week, arguing the dangers of mining are a “compelling” reason to require Amish workers to wear hard hats.

“Mining is a particularly hazardous occupation and has been recognized over the years as a high hazard industry that requires critical protections to be in place to prevent injury and death of miners,” the MSHA wrote. “The wearing of hard hats to protect miners from head injuries is clearly a critical protection.”

But the hard hat policy has the potential to affect thousands of Amish workers across the country.

According to a report from the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, there are nearly to 300,000 Amish people living around the country, including a strong concentration in Pennsylvania.

The Amish dress code allows men to wear traditional black and straw hats, but not hard hats. It is part of the society’s deeply held religious convictions that value modesty, said Edsel Burdge, a research associate at the Young Center.

By forcing them to go against their faith, the Amish workers believe their religious rights are being trampled on by the administration, Byler explained.

“It makes you feel like they don’t want to respect our religion,” he said.

Russell Stone Products, the Pennsylvania company that employs the Amish workers, turned to Thompson for help after the MSHA would not relent on the workplace safety policy.

During a recent hearing, Thompson urged Labor Secretary Thomas PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE to consider exempting Amish workers, following a letter he sent to the agency last year.

“On one hand, they’ve got the religious freedom situation,” Thompson later told The Hill, “but on the other hand, they obviously have the safety concerns.”

Perez promised to consider the issue. .

“I take a back seat to no one in my commitment to respecting religious freedom,” Perez said at the hearing. “At the same time, workplace safety is important, too. We want to get it right.”

But Thompson pointed to “inconsistent” policies from two separate divisions of the Labor Department that is causing confusion in the Amish community.

For decades, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has provided a religious exemption for Amish construction workers so they do not have to wear hard hats.

In a 1973 letter, then-OSHA administrator George Guenther promised to “respect the religious practices of the Old Order Amish,” explaining OSHA would not fine mining companies whose Amish workers do not comply with the rule.

“The Old Order Amish dress is part of their religious practice,” Guenther wrote. “The black felt hat is worn even when working, and it is considered a breach of Amish religious principles to wear a ‘hard hat.’ ”

But MSHA, which regulates Russell Stone Products, still requires Amish workers to wear hard hats, regardless of their religious beliefs.

The agency’s policy states: “All persons shall wear suitable hard hats when in or around a mine or plant where falling objects may create a hazard.”

Thompson accused the Labor Department of “sending mixed messages,” but the MSHA responded by saying that the mining workers in the industry it regulates often face greater dangers than those regulated by OSHA.

“Unlike OSHA standards, which cover most industries and occupations, MSHA standards apply only to a single, particularly hazardous industry,” the agency wrote to Thompson.

The Labor Department’s policy is not only preventing the Amish workers from mining for sandstone but is also affecting business, the firm said.

Dan Russell, the owner of Russell Stone Products, said his company is missing out on an additional $2 million in sales each year because he cannot expand his business without hiring more Amish workers for his mines. 

The MSHA explained the company could accommodate the Amish religious beliefs by “not requiring miners to work in locations where falling objects may harm them.” 

Russell said he has taken this advice and put the Amish to work in another part of the production process, but is still having a hard time finding other non-Amish workers to fill the mining jobs.

“Our Amish workers are a very valuable asset to our company and I do not want to jeopardize our operation because of their religious beliefs,” Russell wrote in a letter to Perez last August. 

“Is it the government’s role to tell people how to practice their religion?” he asked.