April 8, 2010

John King talks to West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall about the tragedy at the Massey Energy mine and the two of them go through a list of possible solutions to improve mining safety and of course they leave out the most obvious one, unionization.

We need to be asking both of them to go read this article by Meteor Blades at Daily KOS -- Want Safer Mines? Unionize Them:

It isn't a matter a matter of speculation. If you're an underground coal miner, your chances of emerging alive at the end of your shift are better if you work in a union mine than if you don't.

A report from the March 28, 2007, hearing on Protecting the Health and Safety of America's Mine Workers released by the House Committee on Education and Labor contains the following statistics for the five-year period of 2002-2006:

Underground coal injuries: 19,282

In union mines: 5,362 (or 27.8% of total)

Underground coal fatalities: 109

In union mines: 22 (or 20.2%)

According to the United Mine Workers of America, in 2007-2009, there were 45 underground coal-mining fatalities. Six of these were in union mines. Thus, for the 15-year period, less than one-fifth of the fatalities occurred in union mines. [...]

In fact, union mines may have a higher number of citations for safety violations than non-union mines. That is because union inspectors accompany Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors when they check out a mine. They are far less likely to pass over problem situations than are inspectors who are being pressed by company officials to finish up and get out of their hair so they can get back to digging. Union inspectors seek those citations because they want to prevent injury and death. Read on...

In contrast, look at the ridiculous list of items they come up with that won't do an ounce of good. Hotlines, creating a fund so mines can be shut down for inspections if there are concerns so the workers don't lose pay, Congressmen "chaining themselves to a fence" and telling industry not to cut corners. It's painfully obvious neither of these two have ever worked in a dangerous industry.

The only thing that's going to prevent these kind of tragedies is the workers being able to report problems without fear of being fired and being trained properly in the first place to recognize hazards on the job. Recognizing and removing hazards before someone gets killed takes day in and day out cooperation between the company and the workers and safety issues being addressed as soon as they are found. No inspector or outside group is ever going to do that efficiently or in a timely manner. That takes boots on the ground in the form of workers and their supervisors being trained to recognize the hazards in their workplace and being allowed to report problems without fear of retribution or firing even if it means shutting a job down to get a problem fixed.

When a company does not care about the safety of its workers, a union is the only other organization that's going to fill that gap in a manner that truly protects their workforce. Seeing the types of abuses these miners have suffered just sickens me and knowing the track record of this mining company, sadly the tragic results of their neglect doesn't surprise me either.

Transcript via CNN below the fold.

KING: But we have these accountability questions only after brave men die. And my question to you, sir, and is -- is if this place was a bad actor -- you used those terms yourself, has a maverick reputation, you used on our air this morning -- we have talked to miners who say -- that were worried about the evacuation plan. They were worried about the ventilation plan. There have been citations about methane gas and citations about coal dust.

Why isn't there a system to say, We're not assigning blame here, but enough allegations have been raised that we're going to stop work until we figure this out? If my car doesn't have a blinker, I can't get a safety inspection. If my brakes are worn too low, I can't get a safety inspection. The government stops me because that car might hurt somebody and might kill somebody. Why doesn't the government, the congressmen, somebody stop a mine when people are saying it's a ticking time bomb?

RAHALL: That's a valid point, John, and certainly, we need to pay attention when there are warning signs issued. The unfortunate fact is here that when many of those warning signs come from the miners themselves, those most directly affected, those who have to go into the mine before the sun comes up and don't come out until the sun goes down, we have to have verification. Certainly, any agency would have to have some sort of verification from that miner.

Now, to just go on an anonymous tip won't work. But believe you me, MSHA is doing a better job in recent years. They've had cutbacks in the past, yes, but in the last year or so, they are beefing up their personnel, they are training their personnel, again a requirement under the Miner Act. They're having practice sessions at least quarterly, and these individuals now that are inspecting our mines are being better informed and are better trained than mine safety inspectors of the past. So it is a new age and it is coming into effect, and we will certainly follow up in the Congress.

KING: That's my question, in the sense that I know you will follow up, sir, and I'm not questioning your commitment to this issue. But it is only after people die that we start asking these questions. I am trying to figure out, is there a way to have a circuit breaker that doesn't blame anybody -- I know the company is innocent until proven guilty. Some of these violations, as you mentioned, are very, very minor. They can be taken care of quickly, but some of them are not, the allegations. And is there a way -- and the miners say they have to go to work because they have to feed their families. Is there a way for the industry, somebody, to create a fund that if you need to stop work for a day or three or even a week or three, to check these things out, that these guys get paid? So that they are not afraid to raise their hands? And that somebody can go in and say, is there a methane buildup in there? Is there an evacuation plan? Is there too much coal dust before we have to have a conversation under these circumstances?

RAHALL: I will admit to you the warnings signs were there on this particular operation, this particular mine. And as I have said and you've accurately quoted, this has been a bad apple, and it's incumbent that we find methods, perhaps an anonymous 800 toll-free line -- and we have experimented with that in the past -- to get people to call in with information.

And then that's not enough. And even the law passed by Congress is not enough if it's not implemented and enforced. And that's the key here, is implementation on the ground, enforcement. And that takes integrity. That takes honesty. That takes a no cutting the corners approach not only by the industry, but those that inspect the industry as well, and who may be later on in life, in their careers, looking for a job within that same industry. We've seen that in the past. I'm not saying that's happening today, but that is a warning to these mine inspectors that they have to be on the alert for the warning signals, and then run it up the chain of command, no matter how frivolous you may think it is at the time.

KING: But you said yourself, sir, that there were warning signs, you just said warning signs were there at this particular mine before this accident.

RAHALL: Yes, they were.

KING: So why didn't somebody, maybe the local congressman -- that would be you -- or somebody, chain themselves to the damn fence and say, there are enough warnings signs, you're not going in there?

RAHALL: Well, the fact of the matter is that those warning signs weren't brought to the proper officials. We know now, for example, because of your research of the violations issued as late as Monday, although I don't think serious, but there were violations I've just learned that were issued as late as March 30th that perhaps were of a more serious nature, involving ventilation. When you have violations or citations issued because of ventilation, improper ventilation for methane and CO and other hazardous gases, then that should be a warning something is wrong.

But it should be made public. It should be made knowing to the members of Congress. That was not made to my attention. It was not brought to my attention. And as far as I know, I'm not sure whose attention it was brought to, except perhaps some listing in an anonymous register somewhere. That don't get it. And that's where we need to have some other type of alert when these violations, citations are issued.

KING: Congressman Nick Rahall, I appreciate your time tonight, sir. And let's talk in the days ahead, if there's anything you think our business can do, my business can do to help bring these things to people's attention, I hope in the days and weeks ahead you drop us a note or give us a call, because we would like to be part of it as well. Congressman Nick Rahall, thank you, sir.

RAHALL: Thank you, John.

Can you help us out?

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