With Workers Memorial Day coming up April 28, the need for stronger, enforceable worker protection laws gained national attention with the loss of at least 25 miners in a West Virginia explosion.
The accident is a timely and heartbreaking reminder of why organized labor is fighting for more and better regulatory oversight for the mining and other U.S. industries, more dollars to ensure that federal inspections aren’t the once in a lifetime occurrence that they’ve become as ell as stricter and more meaningful and timely punishments for companies that negligently put their workers in harm’s way.
News account reveal that the explosion resulted in the greatest loss of life at aU.S. mining facility in more than two decades.
The tragedy in the Raleigh County, WV mine, which is owned by the Massey Energy Co., has left co-workers, families and members of the community shocked. The reaction coming out of Massey has been a bit different, with representatives from the company suggesting that it may have been the miners themselves, and not the company’s repeated safety violations, that led to this horrible incident.
With the incident getting widespread media attention, the American public is getting a rare, first-hand look at some of the prevailing attitudes of many of the non-union companies operating in the industry.
President Barack Obama offered his “deepest condolences” to the miners’ families; Labor Secretary Hilda Solis issued a statement stating, “Twenty-five hardworking men diedneedlessly in a mine. I pledge that their deaths will not be in vain.”
An earlier interview by Massey Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship has been receiving some media attention in the wake of the accident. It has him stating when asked about the thousands of violations, “We don’t pay much attention to the violation count.”
Meanwhile, mine rescue crews, including those from the United Mine Workers (UMWA), were poised to find and save those missing. Upon learning of the tragedy, UMWA President Cecil Roberts said, “The hearts and prayers of all UMWA members are with the families of those lost.
“Rescue teams are putting their lives on the line, entering a highly dangerous mine to bring any survivors to safety.”
The AP reports that three miners have been killed at the Raleigh County, WV mine since 1998, the most recent in 2003, when an electrician died after being electrocuted while repairing a shuttle.
Newspaper reports have noted that there have more than 3,000 safety violation citations at the plant – 638 since 2009.
Ellen Smith, an expert in the field who edits Mine Safety and Health News, tried to put the matter into a larger perspective when she noted that while enforcement by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has improved over the past year, it still remains inadequate.
According to Smith, the general regulatory laxity that gripped MSHA over the past decade will take some time to be fully reversed, as evidenced by these latest developments at the non-union Massey plant.
Among other things, coal companies can keep from correcting unsafe conditions by dragging the inspection process out by contesting every violation.
The Massey mine is non-union. Smith says union mines tend to be safer and union miners are much more willing to speak out about safety violations.