CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Obama administration mine safety regulators have stepped up their efforts to help coal miners who complain they were discriminated against for expressing concerns about health and safety problems where they work.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration says it has seen a "marked increase" in the number of miners temporarily reinstated to their jobs after filing safety discrimination complaints over suspensions, layoffs or firings.
"All miners have the right to a safe workplace, and the right to identify hazardous conditions and refuse unsafe work without fear of discrimination or retaliation," said MSHA chief Joe Main. "Since I arrived at MSHA nearly three years ago, one of my top goals has been to educate miners about those rights and protections, and to rigorously enforce them."
Under federal law, miners cannot be discharged, discriminated against or interfered with in the exercise of their legal rights because they filed complaints alleging unsafe or unhealthy working conditions. In addition, miners have rights including, for example, testifying or assisting in legal proceedings brought under federal mine safety law. They also have the right to refuse to work under unsafe or unhealthy conditions.
If miners allege they have been punished for expressing safety concerns, they can seek temporary reinstatement to their jobs while their cases are being heard.
MSHA said the number of temporary reinstatement requests submitted on behalf of miners by MSHA more than tripled from the 2007-09 budget years to the 2010-12 budget years, from 22 to 71. Additionally, MSHA filed 70 complaints alleging mine safety discrimination during the 2010-12 period, compared to 39 in 2007-09.
After the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, miners and family members from the Massey Energy operation complained that workers there had been reluctant to speak out about safety conditions, fearing retaliation by mine management.
In its report on the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners, MSHA concluded that Massey successfully "intimidated miners" so that government inspectors did not learn of serious safety problems prior to the disaster.
"Testimony revealed that UBB's miners were intimidated to prevent them from exercising their whistleblower rights," the MSHA report said. "Production delays to resolve safety issues often were met by UBB officials with threats of retaliation and disciplinary actions."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.