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William “Bob” Griffith, 54 died at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine on April 5.   His tribute page says he

“came from a family of miners, went into the mines as a young man with his father and worked there like his brothers.  …When he wasn’t working, Griffith and his wife were fixing up their 1967 Camaro.”

His wife Melanie Griffith has now asked MSHA asst. secretary Joe Main twice (once on April 20 and April 23) for his agency to hold a public hearing as part of the disaster investigation.  In her request yesterday, she pleads for a response, noting:

“time is of the essence”

Her letter continues:

“It is our understanding that MSHA will begin witness interviews on Tuesday.  Family members deserve and demand full transparency and a voice as they go through what is undoubtedly the most difficult time of their lives.  Please respond to this most urgent request.”

I’m confident that Mr. Main and the Labor Secretary’s top staff will make a prompt decision on Mrs. Melanie Griffith’s request, or contact her (and the other Massey families) early next week to fill them in on their decision-making process.

by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

I wasn’t able to catch President Obama’s remarks on mine safety live, but immediatley saw the summary by Ken Ward at Coal Tattoo.  Two main thrusts in the points flagged by Ken: MSHA needs a better way of identifying mines that need extra enforcement attention.  And new legislation is almost 100% certain in the next months.  Update: exceptionally strong words from the President’s actual statement:

….we do know that this tragedy was triggered by a failure at the Upper Big Branch mine — a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue.

Many experienced, intelligent and thoughtful people will be giving their best attention to reforming mine safety.  The S-Miner Act, which was proposed but not enacted after Crandall Canyon in 2007, is one likely starting point.  Not an engineer, nor an attorney — but nevertheless, having worked more than 30 years around mine safety issues, I would like to offer a few personal reflections that someone might possibly find useful.

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by Rena Steinzor, cross-posted from CPRBlog

What Progressives Expect from OIRA: An Open Letter to Cass Sunstein

Dear Cass:

As you know, we picked a spat with the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) last week over Randy Lutter’s supposedly temporary detail appointment to your office.  It’s not the first time we’ve criticized the workings of OIRA, and almost certainly won’t be the last. 

I’ve spoken to a number of people in the media and elsewhere who have expressed surprise that progressive organizations like CPR are such relentless critics of a progressive Administration.  I’m sure Administration officials feel this frustration as well.  That dynamic is at work in OIRA’s case because you have a reputation as a progressive thinker on many issues.

I won’t try to speak for all progressives, but I can assure you that very few of us criticize the Administration lightly.  Nor do we do it with any sense of pleasure. 

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Caution: for adult eyes only.

I’ve just read a horrendous case of an employer’s failing to correct a hostile work environment with glaring and gross instances of sexual harassment.  The employer? The U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration.  The victim is Ms. Heather Smith, an MSHA employee in Madisonville, KY; the harasser is her former immediate supervisor, Robert Gray.   His offensive and illegal behavior include:

  • constantly staring at Smith’s body and trying to look down her blouse
    suggesting she wear ‘see through’ dresses
  • asking to see photographs of her in a bikini
  • asking her to give him a neck massage
  • telling her and her spouse, shortly before he was deployed to Iraq, in a sexually-suggestive manner, that he would take ‘good care of’ her while he was gone
  • asking her to take time off from work with him

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reported by Mine Safety and Health News: Martin County: New Information  Released, But Information on Mine Seals Still  Redacted

A Labor Dept.’s Inspector General report on the whistle-blower complaints surrounding the 2000 Martin County Coal Co.  impoundment failure in Kentucky, verifies a change in MSHA’s  investigation after the administration of George W. Bush came into power.  In addition, the IG report shows that it  never questioned the lead investigator into the impoundment failure – Tony  Oppegard – who headed the investigation team until the day G.W. Bush was  inaugurated. 
The IG investigation was launched after Mine  Academy head Jack Spadaro claimed that Bush Administration officials were  interfering in the investigation into one of the largest environmental disasters  in the eastern U.S.    Spadaro was “second in command” on the MSHA  investigation team looking into the causes of the failure, and was head of the  team when Oppegard was absent.

The IG report shows that after the top  echelon of MSHA changed with administrations, the tone and scope of the  investigation also changed. 

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Underground coal mine operators can use conveyor belts,  which do not satisfy the requirements set forth for the approval of  flame-resistant conveyor belts (30 C.F.R. Part 14if the  conveyor belts have been warehoused, but are not in active use before December  31, 2009, according to an MSHA guidance document.  The guidance  document, dated Oct. 7, 2009, defines the term, “placed in service.”  

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It’s long past time to breathe some fresh air into the Department of Labor’s Solicitor’s Office (SOL).  I was hopeful when President Obama nominated M. Patricia Smith in April to serve as the Solicitor of Labor, but since her May 7 confirmation hearing, her appointment is languishing in the Senate HELP committee.  The Solicitor’s Office has about 600 employees, many of whom are attorneys working in regional offices across the country, and they are supposed to help DOL agencies accomplish their missions by providing legal advice.  The mission statement includes, ensuring that the

“Nation’s labor laws are forcefully and fairly applied to protect the Nation’s workers.”

However, when it comes to protecting coal miners who have been discriminated against for complaining about safety problems, some attorneys in SOL are failing miserably.

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Last fall, we warned that a Supreme Court decision on medical device companies’ liability would remove a powerful incentive for device manufacturers to ensure their products’ safety. In that case, Riegel v. Medtronic, the Court ruled that as long as devices are FDA-approved, consumers injured by the devices can’t sue the manufacturers for liability in state courts – in short, FDA approval preempted those lawsuits. This wouldn’t be such a problem if FDA weren’t such a woefully under-resourced agency.

We feared that the Court might again rule in manufacturers’ favor in a similar case, this one involving pharmaceuticals. But in Wyeth v. Levine, the Court upheld a jury verdict awarded to musician Diana Levine, whose arm had to be amputated after an incorrectly administered injection of Wyeth’s anti-nausea drug Phenergan. (Levine claimed Wyeth’s warning against the administration method she received should have been stronger.) The New York Times’ Adam Liptak explains why the Court’s decision on pharmaceuticals differed from its decision on medical devices, and what the larger implications are:

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Or is it: what wouldn’t we know without investigative journalist Andrew Schneider???  Would the town Libby, Montana mean anything?  How about the words Zonolite, Diacetyl, or GRAS?  These terms and places are familiar because of Andy Schneider, the Pulitzer Prize (and other) award winning reporter, who’s an integral part of our public health community.  Schneider’s worked recently for papers in Seattle, St. Louis, Baltimore and back to Seattle, but no matter where his feet land, stellar investigations follow.         

Right now, it appears that Schneider is staked out at the Russell Smith Courthouse in Missoula, Montana providing us a day-to-day accounts of the federal criminal trial against W.R. Grace and five Grace officials.  They are charged with conspiring to cover-up the health hazard the company created by mining asbestos-containing vermiculite in the town of Libby, MT. 

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Cross-posted from Sustained Outrage: a Gazette Watchdog Blog  

by Ken Ward, Jr.

Bayer CropScience hasn’t said yet if it will challenge $143,000 in fines issued by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 13 serious and 2 repeat violations related to the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two Institute plant workers.  But a vigorous court fight seems likely, given who Bayer has hired as its lawyer in the matter. 

Robert C. Gombar is well known for his efforts to help companies that butt heads with OSHA over allegations that they weren’t complying with workplace health and safety rules.  Gombar is head of the OSHA, MSHA & Catastrophe Response Group at the Washington, D.C., offices of the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery. The firm’s Web site says Gombar has been “primary outside counsel to companies in over 30 industrial disaster situations.”

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