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UMW, Rockefeller concerned about shutdown's impact on mine safety

The president of the United Mine Workers on Tuesday warned union members that federal safety inspections have been significantly curtailed, and urged coal miners around the country to call elected officials and demand an end to the government shutdown.

"The government's watchdog isn't watching," UMW President Cecil Roberts said following the deaths of three coal miners on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in West Virginia, Illinois and Wyoming.

On Tuesday night, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also expressed his concerned about the potential impacts of the government shutdown on coal-mine safety in West Virginia and across the country.

"While details are still forthcoming about this and other mining fatalities we've suffered in recent days, I cannot help but to express my deep frustration about the misguided government shutdown that has furloughed MSHA inspectors and prevented them from conducting the regular inspections that make sure coal companies are operating their mines as safely as possible," Rockefeller said.

"As I've said, it's time for the House to send the Senate a clean funding bill so we can get our government running and our mine safety inspectors back to work," Rockefeller said.. "The safety and health of our miners depends on it."

In a prepared statement, Roberts echoed the Monday comments from Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, who called the string of deaths "extremely troubling."

"The circumstances surrounding each of these fatalities are different, and I do not want to draw immediate conclusions as to their causes based on incomplete evidence at this time," Roberts said. "But it is extremely troubling that within a week after the federal government shutdown caused the normal system of mine safety inspection and enforcement to come to a halt, three miners are dead."

Roberts added, "I urge all miners, union members or not, to be especially careful at work. Check on your buddy. Watch each other's back. Take extra precautions when operating machinery.

"And finally, call your members of Congress and Senators and tell them while they're squabbling, miners are dying."

Meanwhile Tuesday, the coordinator of Mountain State Justice's new Miner Safety and Health Project said that the government shutdown is likely to delay the process for miners with pending black lung benefits appeals.

Sam Petsonk said that, prior to the government shutdown, it would already take miners more than a year to get initial hearings before Labor Department administrative law judges.

The department's contingency plan called for it to furlough all 122 staff in its ALJ section, and to delay all hearings. The Benefits Review Board, the next step in appealing a black lung case, was to cut staff from 66 to 4.

"At a time when the DOL system was already beset by backlog and delay, the shutdown is simply further restricting access to justice for disabled miners and their families," Petsonk said.

At MSHA, the shutdown contingency plan called for the agency to send home nearly 1,400 of its 2,355 employees nationwide. The agency was scheduled to focus its furloughs at its Arlington, Va., headquarters as part of an effort to continue as many mine inspections as possible.

Industry officials have said so far that there is no evidence that any of the three deaths that occurred during the government shutdown had anything to do with MSHA's cutbacks.

But Roberts noted that MSHA has stopped its legally mandated "regular inspections of each of the nation's coal mines, and is instead "keeping an eye on operators and mines with a history of mine safety and health problems, or responding to special situations."

Unlike other kinds of workplaces, federal law requires periodic safety and health inspections at all of the nation's coal mines. Under the law, MSHA is supposed to conduct what agency officials call "fours and twos," inspecting every mine "in its entirety," at least once per quarter for underground mines and twice per year for surface mines.

During the government shutdown, MSHA is instead conducting only "targeted inspections" that focused on "high-hazard" mines with a history of conditions and practices that have recently caused deaths or serious injuries."

Industry officials say they are still seeing MSHA inspectors at their operations, but Labor Department officials have not said how many "targeted inspections" they are able to accomplish given their staffing cuts. 

"The government shutdown means that there are fewer mine inspectors on the job," Roberts said. "No regular inspections are taking place, even though they are required by law."

MSHA's plan for "targeted inspections" is actually similar to proposals that the National Mining Association and others in the mining industry have made for years. Industry officials believe MSHA should focus its efforts on operations with the most problems.

"Targeting resources is something we've advocated in the past," said Bruce Watzman, senior vice president for the National Mining Association. 

Watzman said his group did not suggest that mandatory inspections of all mines be eliminated. "Rather," he said, "targeting speaks to how MSHA conducts their work while at a mine so that it's targeted to those areas where the potential for hazards are the greatest.

"We believe MSHA, if they so desired, could accommodate this by redefining how they interpret the phrase "in its entirety" which guides their inspection focus," Watzman said.


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