the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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Focus on Workplace Safety

Summary: 
Joseph Main, Assistant Secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, gives an update on changes in mine safety in the wake of the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Each year across America, more than 5,000 workers are killed on the job. Another four million are injured, and thousands more will subsequently become ill or die from present day occupational exposures.

Recent tragedies—like the explosions at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia and aboard the Deepwater Horizon off the Gulf Coast—make that clear.  The news coverage is certainly fostering public awareness of the hazards facing many workers, but every day, countless other workplace injuries and deaths go largely unnoticed.

Shortly after the Upper Big Branch explosion, the President made clear his personal commitment and that of the Administration to honor the victims of this disaster by ensuring justice is served on their behalf and that an accident of this magnitude never happens again.  He told the nation “we owe [those who perished in the UBB disaster] more than prayers.  We owe them action.  We owe them accountability.  We owe them an assurance that when they go to work every day, when they enter that dark mine, they are not alone.  They ought to know that behind them there is a company that’s doing what it takes to protect them, and a government that is looking out for their safety.”

To ensure that justice is done, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is conducting a thorough and comprehensive investigation into what caused that explosion.  This investigation will be the most open and transparent in MSHA’s history.  We will be holding a number of public hearings, enabling unprecedented public participation in the investigation. 

This investigation answers the President’s call for accountability, but his call for action is equally important. Addressing modern workplace hazards means equipping MSHA, as well as the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) with modern tools to enforce every employer’s obligation for the safety and health of their workers.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to testify before the House Committee on Education and Labor along with the Assistant Secretary for OSHA, Dr. David Michaels and the Solicitor of Labor, Patricia Smith.  We spoke in support of the Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010, updated legislation based on the fundamental principles that:

  • every worker is entitled to come home from work safely at the end of a shift; and
  • even in potentially dangerous industries such as mining, accidents, injuries and illnesses can be prevented when employers institute and follow safety plans, prevent hazards, and protect workers.

The legislation would close various loopholes, strengthen the penalties used to enforce existing laws and better protect the rights of workers to speak out against unsafe conditions.

For instance, under the current Occupational Safety and Health Act, serious violations – those that pose a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm to workers – are subject to a maximum civil penalty of only $7,000. Willful and repeated violations carry a maximum penalty of only $70,000. Simply put, penalties must be increased to provide a real disincentive for employers who accept worker injuries and deaths as a “cost of doing business.”        

In mining, companies have taken advantage of loopholes in the current “Pattern of Violations” program and treated citations as a cost of doing business that can be delayed for years with legal challenges while miners are exposed to risk. 

Under the proposed changes, MSHA would look at current mine conditions to identify patterns of recurring accidents, injuries, illnesses or citations, or orders for safety or health violations – and act accordingly.  MSHA would also have new remedial tools it can employ to improve safety and health at those mines.  The same data and criteria that MSHA uses would also be available for the public to review, enabling mine operators to monitor their own performance and change their ways before they put their miners into danger. 

In addition to updating necessary enforcement tools, the Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 would also strengthen whistleblower protections administered by OSHA and MSHA for workers in mining and in other industries.  It makes explicit that a worker may not be retaliated against for reporting injuries, illnesses or unsafe conditions to employers or to a safety and health committee, or for refusing to perform a task that the worker reasonably believes could result in serious injury or illness to the worker or to other employees. 

These are all important and necessary changes that would improve the lives of working families across our nation.  After all, no job should kill or harm our workers.  And, everyone, whether they are underground in a mine, out in the ocean on an oil rig, or in a factory on the land, deserves a safe and healthful workplace.

Joseph Main is the Assistant Secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration