Honoring 29 Miners

The last few weeks have been filled with reminders of the dangers Americans face at work – from the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to today’s sad anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, where 29 miners were killed. These tragedies remind us that preventable workplace accidents are still all too common in this country.  In 2010, 4,300 workers died on the job in this country.

Improving workplace safety for miners and all workers has been a priority of the Administration’s Middle Class Task Force, chaired by Vice President Joe Biden. Over the last year, the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) have been working to enforce and improve our workplace safety laws. 

MSHA initiated strategic “impact” inspections at mines it believes could be at risk for an explosion, have poor compliance histories or poor safety systems.  Since April 2010, MSHA has conducted 228 impact inspections, resulting in 4,200 citations and 396 orders. The Department of Labor has also taken steps to reduce backlogs and delays in enforcement by allowing quicker identification of mines with patterns of violations. 

Because MSHA and inspectors can’t be at every mine all the time, the Department has proposed a rule that would require mine operators to regularly identify and correct violations of health or safety standards on their own, with MSHA inspectors regularly checking in on their progress.  Together, these actions have and will continue to make a real difference in the daily work of miners.

OSHA has also been hard at work. In 2010, OSHA inspected the workplaces of over 5.9 million Americans and provided free on site compliance assistance to over 26, 000 businesses. The agency also launched a program to identify and concentrate resources on the most egregious and severe violators.

Working with the Middle Class Task Force, OSHA and the Department of Justice have expanded the Worker Endangerment Initiative. Under the Initiative, DOL and DOJ work together to evaluate employers who repeatedly violate workplace safety laws in order to identify those that may also have violated environmental or other criminal statutes that carry stronger penalties. This kind of collaboration makes sure the full force of the law is brought in cases where workers are put in harm’s way.

Even with all these efforts to increase enforcement and compliance, both OSHA and MSHA need better tools to effectively protect workers. That’s why we support Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline in their efforts to strengthen our mine safety laws. 

As the Vice President said at a memorial service for the 29 miners who lost their lives last year, “the men we remember today went into the darkness so that we could have light.  They embraced a life of hard work and a career full of peril.  It was dangerous – it was dangerous work and they knew it, but they never flinched. … Many of them loved it; some of them dreaded it.  But all of them, all of them approached it with dignity, resolve, and strength.”

Today we honor their memory by continuing to make progress in improving the safety of our workplaces.

Maureen Tracey-Mooney is Senior Policy Analyst in the Office of the Vice President.

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