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President Obama has just proclaimed April 28, 2010 as Workers Memorial Day. His official proclamation states:

This year marks the 40th anniversary of both the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which promise American workers the right to a safe workplace and require employers to provide safe conditions. Yet, today, we remain too far from fulfilling that promise. On Workers Memorial Day, we remember all those who have died, been injured, or become sick on the job, and we renew our commitment to ensure the safety of American workers.

The families of the 29 coal miners who lost their lives on April 5 in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia are in our thoughts and prayers. We also mourn the loss of 7 workers who died in a refinery explosion in Washington State just days earlier, the 4 workers who died at a power plant in Connecticut earlier this year, and the 11 workers lost in the oil platform explosion off the coast of Louisiana just last week.

Although these large-scale tragedies are appalling, most workplace deaths result from tragedies that claim one life at a time through preventable incidents or disabling disease. Every day, 14 workers are killed in on-the-job incidents, while thousands die each year of work-related disease, and millions are injured or contract an illness. Most die far from the spotlight, unrecognized and unnoticed by all but their families, friends, and co-workers — but they are not forgotten.

The legal right to a safe workplace was won only after countless lives had been lost over decades in workplaces across America, and after a long and bitter fight waged by workers, unions, and public health advocates. Much remains to be done, and my Administration is dedicated to renewing our Nation’s commitment to achieve safe working conditions for all American workers.

Providing safer work environments will take the concerted action of government, businesses, employer associations, unions, community organizations, the scientific and public health communities, and individuals. Today, as we mourn those lost mere weeks ago in the Upper Big Branch Mine and other recent disasters, so do we honor all the men and women who have died on the job. In their memory, we rededicate ourselves to preventing such tragedies, and to securing a safer workplace for every American.

I’m told that President Obama is the first president to issue a proclamation for Workers Memorial Day. This is a strong signal that his administration recognizes the importance of worker health and safety.

Committees in both the House and Senate will be holding hearings for Worker Memorial Day. The official date for Worker Memorial Day is April 28th, but the Senate is holding its hearing this afternoon.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions’  “Putting Safety First: Strengthening Enforcement and Creating a Culture of Compliance at Mines and Other Dangerous Workplaces” is scheduled for 2pm on April 27th in 430 Dirksen.

If you’re in the DC area, join us tomorrow (April 28th) in front of the Department of Labor (200 Constitution Ave. NW) at 8am for a gathering with family members who’ve lost loved ones to workplace disasters. We’ll then head to the House office building for the  House Education & Labor Committee’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee hearing, “Whistleblower and Victims Rights provisions of HR 2067, the Protecting America’s Workers Act.” It’s scheduled for 10am in 2175 Rayburn. Celeste will be one of the witnesses.

And no matter what you’re doing tomorrow, take a moment to think about all the workers who’ve been injured and lost their lives while on the job – and what we can and should be doing to make workplaces safer and healthier for all.

Yesterday, family members, friends, and neighbors of the 29 miners killed at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine gathered for a memorial service at the convention center in Buckhannon, West Virginia. They were joined by Governor Joe Manchin, members of West Virginia’s Congressional delegation, Vice President Biden, and President Obama. At the start of his remarks, the president read out the names of the miners who lost their lives in the April 5th explosion:

Carl Acord. Jason Atkins. Christopher Bell. Gregory Steven Brock. Kenneth Allan Chapman. Robert Clark. Charles Timothy Davis. Cory Davis. Michael Lee Elswick. William I. Griffith. Steven Harrah. Edward Dean Jones. Richard K. Lane. William Roosevelt Lynch. Nicholas Darrell McCroskey. Joe Marcum. Ronald Lee Maynor. James E. Mooney. Adam Keith Morgan. Rex L. Mullins. Joshua S. Napper. Howard D. Payne. Dillard Earl Persinger. Joel R. Price. Deward Scott. Gary Quarles. Grover Dale Skeens. Benny Willingham. Ricky Workman.

At his Coal Tattoo blog, Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette gives a moving description of the service. It begins:

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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.

The Coast Guard has just called off its search for the 11 workers who’ve been missing since Tuesday’s oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Hopes that the workers made it into lifeboats have faded. It seems likely that the workers were either killed by the explosion or unable to make it safely off the burning platform – but then their bodies will have sunk along with rig. Their loved ones will have the additional anguish of not knowing for sure what happened to them.

Tom Fowler at the Houston Chronicle’s NewsWatch:Energy blog has a bit more on who the missing workers were and their likely location at the time of the explosion:

The 9 Transocean workers and 2 M.I. Swaco workers have been missing since late Tuesday night when the rig appears to have suffered a blowout that caused an explosion and fire. Many of the men are believed to have been on the drilling floor of the rig at the time of the accident, an area where the blowout could have had the most devestating impact.

The rig was owned by Transocean and leased to BP. Fowler also notes that the rig was holding 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel at the time of the explosion, and crews are trying to clean up oil that has spilled.

Houston Chronicle reporters Tom Fowler, Monica Hatcher, and Brett Clanton note that this is one in a string of recent disasters at oil and gas facilities:

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by Ken Ward, Jr., cross-posted from CoalTattoo

Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama issued a memo in which he asserted this his administration

“is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

The memo continued:

“We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

Well, Obama’s Labor Department has now received formal requests from two of the widows of the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, asking that the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) conduct its investigation of the disaster through the public hearing provisions of the federal mine safety law.  But so far, neither the White House nor MSHA has publicly offered any response to these requests. 

Were MSHA to grant the requests, all investigative interviews would be open to the families, the press and the public.  There would be no exclusive access for coal company lawyers (as Gov. Joe Manchin’s mine safety director, Ron Wooten, has said the state would allow) or for the United Mine Workers union.  Everybody would be able to watch and listen, and know whether the investigation was asking the right questions and digging for real answers about what caused this horrible disaster.

Are there potential downsides to doing this through a public hearing?  Sure.

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by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

On April 9, wearing my correspondent’s hat for Mine Safety and Health News, I emailed a member of the Department of Labor public affairs staff, suggesting that this document be posted. On April 12, I again requested the plan.  On April 13, I filed a FOIA.  The documentation has now been added by the agency to its single-source Upper Big Branch

(You might think that, as a requester, I might have got word from someone at MSHA that the plan was now posted, rather being left to stumble across it.  Or maybe not. Ken Ward has had some things to say lately about transparency at MSHA.)

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Mr. Jim DeMarce, Director of the Labor Department’s Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation, passed away suddenly on April 12.  He served coal miners and their families for 25 years, helping them wade through the federal black lung benefits program.  He was also known more recently for his efforts during the Clinton Administration to improve the regulations for processing that seem forever stacked against workers in favor of coal mine operators. 

Steve Sanders of the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center said this about Jim DeMarce:

I was acquainted with Jim for about 10 years through my work on black lung benefits claims.  He regularly attended the annual meeting of the Black Lung Clinics and Respiratory Disease Clinics.   Each year Jim would give a presentation on the federal black lung program with statistical information, such as the approvals and length of time for adjudications. 

Jim was very concerned about disabled miners and widows and wanted to see the black lung benefits program serve the disabled miners and widows in the ways it was intended.  He worked on the 2000 amendments to the regulations, trying to create a more level playing field for claimants, who up to that time were being completely overwhelmed by the superior resources of the insurance companies fighting against them. 

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As Department of Labor officials noted in their opening remarks at the National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety last week, Latino workers have higher rates of occupational injuries and fatalities than US workers as a whole. They are particularly likely to work in low-wage, high-risk jobs, but may not receive or know about the training, equipment, and other safeguards to which they’re entitled.

Since no previous administration’s Department of Labor has made such a high-profile move to advance Latino workers’ health and safety, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and the Department of Labor staff deserve credit for taking this important first step. As the lead organizing agency, OSHA deserves commendations for bringing together 1,000 participants from government, labor unions, community organizations, and employer and industry groups to engage with each other on this issue.

What I most want to praise OSHA for, though, was getting actual Latino workers to the event and featuring several of them in the opening session. Jaime Zapata, Senior Managing Director of DOL’s Office of Public Affairs, did a great job moderating the panel, slipping seamlessly back and forth between Spanish and English (the workers all spoke in Spanish, and although there was a translator on stage, Zapata seemed comfortable speaking with the panelists in Spanish and then quickly summarizing his questions in English). The workers’ stories were the perfect illustration about how much work we still have to do to make all workplaces healthy and safe. Here’s a summary of what they told the crowd:

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Kevin McGill of the Associated Press reports that 11 workers are missing after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig situated in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles from Venice, Louisianna. Seven workers have been critically injured, and two have been taken to a trauma center that has a burn unit. It appears that 126 workers were on the oil platform, and most are believed to have escaped.

Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Mike O’Berry told the AP, “We’re hoping everyone’s in a life raft.” Authorities are searching for lifeboats in the Gulf.

The rig is owned by Transocean Ltd and under contract to BP PLC. We’re hoping that this explosion isn’t as deadly as other disasters at BP facilities. Our thoughts are with the oil rig workers and their families. If anyone hears an update before we do, please leave info in the comments.

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