A group of advocates for miners and their families sent a rulemaking petition to MSHA on February 1, asking the agency to improve its regulations governing the training that mine workers receive about their statutory rights.  The Petition for Rulemaking was submitted by the West Virginia Mine Safety Project, the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, United Support & Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, and the United Mine Workers, and calls for significant improvements in the content and manner in which all U.S. mine workers—whether at coal, gold, stone, or other mine or mill—learn about their rights, such as expressing concerns about hazards, refusing unsafe work, or any rights provided in the 1969 and 1977 federal mine safety and health laws .

The Petition recounts some of the legislative history of our laws to protect miners from workplace hazards, in particular, Congress’ recognition that workers protected from retaliation were empowered.  The Senate Report (95-181, May 16, 1977) noted:

“If our national mine safety and health program is to be truly effective, miners will have to play an active part in the enforcement of the Act.  The Committee is cognizant that if miners are to be encouraged to be active in matters of safety and health, they must be protected against any possible discrimination which they might suffer as a result of their participation.”

The rulemaking petition sent to MSHA notes:

“…many miners, especially those in non-union mines, have only vague knowledge of their statutory rights, if they have any knowledge at all.  The organizational Petitioners have had contact with numerous miners who do not know that they can, for instance, voice concerns about workplace health and safety, refuse to perform unsafe work, review and give input to many aspects of an operator’s plans for mining, or speak with MSHA inspectors and investigators, all without retaliation.  Many miners do not realize that they may designate a representative to perform numerous functions under the Mine Act, and that such a representative need not necessarily be affiliated with a labor union.”

The Petitioners ask that MSHA’s training regulations (Part 46 and Part 48) be revised in the following ways:

  1. Require miners’ rights topics to be covered every year in miners’ 8-hour refresher training; currently, miners receive this training only during “new miner” training which for many miners was 5, 10, 20 years ago.
  2. Delineate the specific topics to be covered under miners’ rights, such as how to designate a miners’ representative, request and participate in inspections, receive pay when idled by an inspector’s withdrawal order, as well as the critically important provisions protecting them from discrimination for exercising any of these rights.  (The petition outlines 39 specific rights afforded to miners under the Mine Act.)
  3. Prohibiting miner operators from providing the training to miners and prospective miners on these statutory rights, recommending instead that these topics be covered by MSHA, State regulators or others who are independent of mine operators or mine management.  (View Petitioners’ news release)

This third recommendation is probably the most pioneering aspect of the Petition:  Officials affiliated with mine management should not be the primary means by which miners learn about their rights.  Think about it from a pure production standpoint—which would some employers rather have (1) a fully empowered workforce that knows and exercises its rights or (2) a compliant workforce that does what it’s told and keeps its mouths shut for fear of losing jobs?  Although things in the real world and in real workplaces are not so black and white, there is plenty of grey area in between facing mine operators.  

The Mine Act requires mine operators to develop a training plan in accordance with regulations developed by MSHA, and the person conducting the training must be approved by MSHA.  At many mines, a management official is designated the “approved” instructor and this person conducts the new miner training, refresher training, task training, and the like. 

Under the Petitioners’ proposal, individuals such as an MSHA or State inspector or an independent trainer could be called on to conduct the specialized miners’ rights training.  In fact, I know a few injured miners, and daughters and mothers of miners, who would make excellent trainers on the topic of miners’ rights. 

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Celeste Monforton, MPH is the special projects coordinator with United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, one of the organizations which submitted this rulemaking petition to MSHA.  She worked with Davitt McAteer on the Governor of WV’s investigation of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster and heard testimony from miners which illustrated serious inadequacies in the conduct of training for miners.  

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