(Updated 3/2/09 below)
The U.S. economy is in the tank—-the national unemployment rate for January was 7.6% and 46 States are facing serious budget shortfalls—–but these hard times are NO EXCUSE to roll-back worker safety protections. Yet, that is exactly what some Kentucky lawmakers are proposing for workers employed at small underground coal mines.
Just two years ago, Kentucky adopted new rules requiring all underground coal mining operations to have at least two workers on-site (at least one underground) who are also trained as emergency medical technicians (EMTs). The safety improvement came in response to the senseless (and fully preventable) death of Bud Morris, 29 who bled to death underground at the H&D Mine on December 30, 2005. By all accounts, Mr. Morris would have survived the crushing injuries to his legs had first-aid been administered properly and promptly. Left behind was his wife Stella and a 2 year old son. The mine safety improvement of two-EMTs rule received high-praise in 2007, with one Kentucky lawmaker boasting to an Associated Press reporter that his State was “setting the example in the nation.” But now that same State representative, coal-mine operator Keith Hall (D-Pike) is leading the charge to dismantle the two-EMT rule. His legislation, HB 119, would roll-back the protection, by requiring only one EMT on-site for workshifts of 18 or fewer coal miners.
“These small operators lose day after day of production because one MET doesn’t show up. The companies are not allowed to operate if they don’t have two underground METs. I know of operations that have lost three days of production due to one MET having flu. When that legislation was done, they never considered the small owner back in the mountains. This is not about what it costs operators. It is about us not running coal because we don’t have two MET’s.”
This sounds like ridiculous belly-aching to me. Why don’t these “small owners back in the mountains” get themselves a couple more METs? An editorial in the Lexington Herald Leader explains how easy and cheap it is for the coal operators to beef up on METs.
“The training is free [and provided by the State]. METS are typically paid no more than an extra $1 an hour. And only one has to be underground when miners are working. You’d think mines would want as many of them as possible.”
In my neck of the woods, I’ve an analogy: Food establishments in Virginia are required to have certified food safety managers on-site at all times supervising the handling and preparation of food. If you don’t have a certified manager on-site—because she had childcare complications or his car broke down—you can’t serve food. In Mr. Hall’s parlance, you’re out of luck running burgers.
Restaurant owners (many are small businesses) manage to comply with the requirement just fine by ensuring that several employees receive the food safety training and certification. Restaurants who are out of compliance with the requirement receive a citation, but worse, they are listed each week in the local newspaper with the unflattery label “no certified food safety manager on-site.” Believe me, people think twice about eating at these scafflow outfits. Moreover, imagine if lawmakers decided to allow restaurants with fewer than 18 employees lesser requirements for on-site certified food safety managers? Ah…not a good idea.
Likewise, it’s a bad idea to permit small underground mines to have lesser emergency response capabilities. Bud Morris’ widow, Stella Morris and other worker safety advocates sent a letter today to every member of the Kentucky legislature. They urged lawmakers to to reject HB 119, and reminded them that eight coal miners died in Kentucky coal mines last year.
“Now is not the time to cut back on safety measures that were so recently enacted. Saving a few dollars for a coal mine operator is not worth risking a miner’s life.”
No matter what KY State Rep. Hall, and co-sponsors Ted Edmonds (D-Breathitt), and Ancel “Hardrock” Smith (D-Knott, Letcher) claim, this bill is nothing more than protecting the interest of coal companies at the expense of coal miners. I fear we will be seeing more of this—as companies’ bottom lines shrink (or turn red,) the pressure will mount to cut-back on measures to ensure workers’ health and safety. We must be vigilant and insist that OSHA, MSHA and other public health regulatory agencies reject employers’ excuses about the shaky economy as a reason for exposing their employees to serious hazards. Despite the dismal economic times, workers must not be forced to choose between a dangerous job, or no job at all. Our nation is better than that.
For more on HB 119 and the coal operator/legislator who is sponsoring it, read Protecting Bud Morris’ Legacy at Ken Ward’s Coal Tattoo.
Update (2/25/09): Louisville Courier-Journal columnist David Hawpe provides some historical perspective to this effort to roll-back worker safety protections. In Remember What Ruby Said, he reminds readers “after every step forward — including state and federal safety laws enacted after multiple disasters in 2006, including at Darby No. 1 in Harlan County — there’s pushback.”
Update (3/3/09): The Lexington Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reports that State Rep. Keith Hall lead sponsor of HB 119 has had one of his very own mining operations shut down by state inspectors for failing to have the two required MET’s on duty. Hall’s mine is run by contract-mine operator Kimara Coal, and it
“was Kimara that the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing cited and shut down at 9:50 a.m. last Aug. 19 for not having an MET or a foreman on the property while coal was produced inside the mine, according to state records. About two hours later, a foreman and two METs arrived at the mine, so the problem was considered resolved.”
“Kimara co-owner John Biliter said Mine #1 employs 7-8 miners per shift. Kimara was at a disadvantage the morning inspectors arrived because one MET didn’t come to work and the other — who was also the foreman — abruptly quit and left, Biliter said. Usually, Kimara respects the law and stops mining when it can’t find two METs, which is an all too common obstacle, he said. ‘At Phelps, we probably miss about four or five days a month because we don’t have METs. It makes it real difficult.'”
I suppose when you run a shoe-string operation, it would serve you well to have all employees trained as METs.