CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- United Mine Workers officials are concerned about the impact of the government shutdown on the safety and health of the nation's coal miners.
Union safety officers will be stepping up their efforts at UMW-represented mines, but spokesman Phil Smith said the mine workers are especially concerned about the shutdown's potential effects at non-union operations.
"It's never good when the full weight of the government's watchdog agency can't be brought to bear to protect miners, union or non-union," Smith said in an email message.
Smith said UMW safety officials at individual mines are increasing their efforts, pointing out safety problems and pressing mine operators to correct them. If operators don't act, Smith noted, all coal miners have a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions.
But Smith said the union is concerned that it's harder for miners at non-union operators to exercise such rights.
"We are concerned about conditions that may occur in nonunion mines where workers don't have the benefit of trained, experienced worker safety committees with the authority to take immediate action to get a dangerous situation rectified," Smith said. "If such a situation is identified in a nonunion mine and MSHA is somehow made aware of it, it is highly unlikely that any corrective action will occur until an inspector actually gets to the site, observes the violation and writes it up."
As part of the government shutdown, MSHA was scheduled to send home nearly 1,400 of its 2,355 employees nationwide. The agency inspects and enforces safety rules at coal and other mines, writes health and safety regulations and reviews certain safety plans that need federal approval before operators can mine.
MSHA chief Joe Main indicated in a shutdown contingency plan that he would focus furloughs at the agency's Arlington, Va., headquarters as part of an effort to continue as many mine inspections as possible.