Death on the Job: What the AFL-CIO won’t say about President Obama’s coal-mine safety record

April 27, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Out today, in preparation for tomorrow’s annual Workers Memorial Day commemoration, is the annual AFL-CIO report, Death on the Job.

The raw statistics are always startling:

In 2009, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,340 workers were killed on the job—an average of 12 workers every day—and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. More than 4.1 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported, but this number understates the problem. The true toll of job injuries is two to three times greater—about 8 million to12 million job injuries and illnesses each year.

And the cost in dollars alone?

The cost of job injuries and illnesses is enormous—estimated at $159 billion to $318 billion a year for direct and indirect costs of disabling injuries.

As usual, this year’s report offers a variety of reform-minded suggestions for improved job protections — more inspectors, tougher laws and regulations, even something as simple as a better accounting of how many workers are hurt or killed on the job.

But there’s also something missing from the report. At least it jumped out at me … and that’s any sort of discussion of the ways that the agency charged with protecting the health and safety of the nation’s miners could on its own do a better job.

Sure, the report has a detailed section on coal-mine safety, focused on last year’s disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine:

The April 5, 2010, explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners in the worst coal mine disaster in the United States in 40 years. The Upper Big Branch disaster shocked and outraged the nation. It exposed serious problems at the Massey mine and deficiencies in mine safety laws and oversight.

The report goes on to outline the now well-known safety record of Massey at Upper Big Branch:

According to MSHA, the UBB mine had a history of serious violations. In 2009, 515 citations and orders were issued, and in 2010, prior to the explosion, there were 124 orders and citations issued for violations at the mine. These violations were serious. More than 39 percent of the citations issued at Upper Big Branch were for significant and substantial violations, and in 2009, MSHA issued 48 withdrawal orders at the mine for repeated significant and substantial violations. These included violations for standards on ventilation, roof supports and coal dust. Most of these violations were contested by Massey.

But the recommended reforms read more like MSHA chief Joe Main’s testimony to Congress, and less like those of an independent labor organization that’s supposed to represent the interests of workers. To read the report, the problem all boils down to the need for more mine safety legislation, and the only issue worth focusing on now is making Republicans look bad for not moving that legislation:

… Changes in the law are needed to give MSHA subpoena power in conducting investigations, injunction authority to shut down dangerous mines, to further improve procedures for addressing patterns of violations and to strengthen civil and criminal penalties. Mine safety legislation to address these areas was introduced in the 111th Congress, but was not enacted. And with the election of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, passage of such legislation in the 112th Congress is not likely.

The AFL-CIO completely leaves out of the picture any notion that MSHA isn’t using all of the tools at its disposal, and doesn’t ask any questions about whether the Obama administration could make worker safety in the coal industry more of a priority.

President Barack Obama, walks with Linda Davis, the grandmother of deceased miner Cory Davis, during a memorial for the victims of the Upper Branch Mine explosion at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The AFL-CIO report rightly highlights the efforts Joe Main and his boss, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have made in many areas — from proposing tougher standards for coal dust that causes black lung and rock-dusting meant to keep coal dust from blowing up, to for the first time ever using the Mine Act’s authority to seek a federal court injunction to shut down a troubled coal mine.

But while it makes much of the fact that the Upper Big Branch Mine never ended up on a “pattern of violations” enforcement status, the AFL-CIO doesn’t note that this was because MSHA itself couldn’t write a computer program that would accurate assess a mine’s violation history.

And while the AFL-CIO report talks about the Obama administration increasing federal government spending on worker safety, it doesn’t mention that MSHA — under the Obama White House — actually cut back on its enforcement efforts because of resource constraints, but never bothered to mention that to Congress or ask for more money to do the job right.

Oddly, the report doesn’t even note that AFL-CIO President Rich Tumka’s old friends at the United Mine Workers union had to file a federal court lawsuit to try to force MSHA to hold a more public investigation of the deaths of those 29 miners at Upper Big Branch.

With those sorts of issues left out, it’s no surprise that the AFL-CIO report doesn’t mention the fact that MSHA never used its authority under the 2006 MINER Act to seek major penalties for “flagrant violations” at Upper Big Branch.  And there’s obviously no mention of the widespread problems outlined in a series of MSHA audits (and certainly not of Joe Main’s efforts to stall the public release of those audits).

The AFL-CIO report concludes, “Workers in the United States need more safety and health protection, not less … there is much more work to be done.” So why doesn’t that work include the nation’s leading labor organization putting more pressure on MSHA to do a better job?

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