House And Senate Democrats Announce Summary Of Major Safety Reforms For Mines And Other Dangerous Workplaces

                               Washington, DC (CompNewsNetwork) - Leading members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives released a summary and discussion draft today of major reforms responding to serious health and safety concerns raised by workers and their families since Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine tragedy and other recent workplace accidents. 

The reforms would provide stronger oversight to ensure that employers comply with the law, empower workers to speak up about safety concerns and give the Department of Labor the tools it needs to ensure that all workers go home safely at the end of the day.
“In mines around the country and in other workplaces as well, worker safety has not been a priority.  Bad actors have put profits ahead of people.  As a consequence, workers have lost vital protections, suffered significant injuries and, in too many cases, lost their lives,” said Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  “We are determined to put sharper teeth in our workplace safety laws and to step up federal enforcement.  We look forward to working with members on both sides of the aisle to find bipartisan solutions for workers.  These policy ideals start that dialogue.”

“The Upper Big Branch tragedy highlighted significant problems in our nation's miner safety laws and need substantial reform. Mine operators who callously and repeatedly put their workers in danger must be held accountable,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. “It is clear that current law does not provide sufficient protections to miners who go underground every day. Today, we take the first step to ensure that the health and safety of workers are put ahead of production and profit.”

The House Education and Labor Committee, joined by Sen. Jay Rockefeller and the West Virginia congressional delegation, heard testimony in Beckley, West Virginia from miners and families of those who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine about serious shortcomings in miner protections, including threats and intimidation of miners who brought up safety concerns to their bosses.

“Too much hurt and tragedy has touched the lives and families of hard-working coal miners in West Virginia – we must pass laws that put a higher priority on safety day in and day out. In the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, Senator Byrd and I worked together to develop new legislative actions to safeguard our miners and that effect will go on,” said Senator Rockefeller (D-WV). “Even as the investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine continues, we know there are problems we can solve today – and we have an obligation to do just that.  We must tackle the repeat ‘pattern of violations' in our mines, give MSHA the authority it needs to implement reforms, and further empower our miners with the protections they deserve to speak out when they see a safety problem.”

“This legislation has been crafted, in large measure, to target and rein in the worst of the worst mine safety violators, while also providing for independent investigations of MSHA," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), who represents the District where Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine is located. "I fully intend to keep working with miners, their families, and coal industry members to fine tune this bill to ensure that coal miners have safer, healthier workplaces while they continue their vital work providing for America's energy needs."      

Members of the House and Senate worked closely with the Department of Labor to ensure that the reforms outlined contained all the tools the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) says it needs to provide sufficient protections to miners and save lives.

“We have seen too many accidents over the last few months in workplaces across the country,” said Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).  “Between recent mine disasters and similar tragedies in other industries, it has become clear that Congress needs to act to strengthen protections provided by both MSHA and OSHA.  Some of the country's workplace fatalities receive national attention – like the explosions at the Tesoro refinery in Washington or Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia – but the vast majority get little attention beyond the affected family and friends. Workers everywhere and in every industry deserve to be able to feel confident that while they are working hard and doing their jobs, their employers are doing everything possible to keep them safe.”

“In addition to strengthening enforcement provisions, this bill also has strong safeguards to protect workers, including improved whistleblower provisions and penalties for those employers who violate a miner's right against retaliation,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), chair of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee. “In this tragic year for miners and other workers, the need for such reforms could not be more urgent. This bill will save lives.”

Among other provisions, the reforms outlined include:

•    Making Mines with Serious and Repeated Violations Safe – Criteria for ‘pattern of violations' sanctions would be revamped to ensure that the nation's most dangerous mine operations improve safety dramatically.
•    Ensuring Irresponsible Operators are Held Accountable – Maximum criminal and civil penalties would be increased and operators would be required to pay penalties in a timely manner.  
•    Giving MSHA Better Enforcement Tools – MSHA would be given the authority to subpoena documents and testimony. The agency could seek a court order to close a mine when there is a continuing threat to the health and safety of miners. MSHA could require more training of miners in unsafe mines. Increased rock dusting would be required to prevent coal dust explosions.  
•    Protecting Miners Who Speak out on Unsafe Conditions – Miners would be granted the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. Protections for workers who speak out about unsafe conditions would be strengthened, and miners would not lose pay for safety-related closures. In addition, miners would receive protections so they can speak freely during investigations.  
•    Increasing MSHA's Accountability – The legislative outline provides for an independent investigation of the most serious accidents.  It would require that mine personnel are well-qualified, and ensure that inspections are comprehensive and well-targeted. Additionally, it requires pre-shift reviews of mine conditions and communication to ensure that appropriate safety information is transmitted.  
•    Guaranteeing Basic Protections in All Other Workplaces – To ensure that all  workplaces have basic protections, whistleblower protections would be strengthened, criminal and civil penalties would be increased, and hazard abatement would be sped up. In addition, victims of accidents and their family members would be provided greater rights during investigations and enforcement actions.

More information on these reforms

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