A group of state legislatorsÂ in West Virginia introduced a bill to strengthen the State’s laws to protectÂ mine workers who raise concerns about unsafe working conditions.Â The lead sponsor isÂ Delegate Bill Hamilton (R) who represents the region where the now-abandoned Sago mineÂ is located.*Â He’s been a strong champion for mine safety improvements and also known for reprimanding Massey Energy’s Don BlankenshipÂ when the CEO asserted that mining disasters, like Sago and Aracoma Alma, were rare and insignificant.Â Â Mine-worker advocates,Â like Nathan Fetty at the WV Mine Safety Project say the current State whistleblower law is so cumbersome and ineffective that few WV miners have successfullyÂ won their safety discrimination cases.Â
The bill (HB 4025) would expand the definition of discrimination for any mine worker, whether working in a coal or non-coal mine (such as a stone quarry)Â as follows:
“No personÂ shall discharge or in any other way discriminate against, or cause to be discharged or discriminated against or otherwise interfere with the exercise of the statutory rights of any miner, any authorized representative of miners, or applicant for employment in any coal or other mine because such miner, representative or applicant for employment:
(1) Has notified the director, his or her authorized representative, representative of miners or an operator, directly or indirectly, of any alleged violation or danger;
(2) has filed, instituted or caused to be filed or instituted any proceeding under or related to this law;
(3) has testified or is about to testify in any proceeding resulting from the administration or enforcement of the provisions of this law or any related law; or
(4) has refused to work in an area or under conditions which he or she believes to be unsafe or
(5) has exercised on behalf of himself or herself or others any right afforded under or related to this law.”
The bill also proposes to give workers 60 days (instead of only 30 days as is provided in the current law) to file a complaint, and the State’s Appeals Board will be required to begin an investigation within 15 days.Â Further:
“if those conducting the investigation find that such complaint was not frivolously brought, the appeals board, on an expedited basis, shall order immediate reinstatement of the miner pending final order of the complaint.”
Why are these proposed changes significant?Â
To me, it’s another example of the growing trend for StateÂ policymakersÂ to tackle worker safety and health problems because they can no longerÂ wait for action by the federal government (here, here, here).Â After the coal miningÂ disasters in 2006,Â severalÂ StatesÂ passedÂ legislation to improve working conditions for miners, such asÂ betterÂ communication and tracking devices and emergency air supplies.Â Other States instituted more frequent inspections and emergency refuge chambers.
This proposed change to protect whistleblowers goes beyond those physical, equipment-based improvements in two important ways.Â First, the protections extend to all mine workers, not just those working in coal mines.Â Second, itÂ shifts the power-structureÂ of worksite safety a little bit towardÂ mine workers themselves.Â UnlikeÂ equipment improvements which are requirements directed at mine operators (i.e., the employer) this change is directed atÂ workers.Â Â It is a committment from the State, in a sense, that if you refuse to work in a situation you believe is unsafe, or even just raise a concern about the safety of a practice or condition, the State will protect you from discharge or discrimination (as longÂ as your complaint is not “frivolous”.)
Now,Â if thisÂ bill were to become law in WestÂ Virginia, I don’t expect theÂ Appeals Board to be flooded with whistleblower complaints from safety-conscious workers.Â Â Despite theÂ enhanced protections it would provide, there are still significantÂ economic, social andÂ culturalÂ risks to workers who exercise their rights, especially those workers who decide to go down this road without the support of a labor union.Â But this bill is a GIANT step in the right direction.Â My hat’s off to the following members of the WestÂ Virginia LegislatureÂ who are original co-sponsors of the whistleblower protection bill:
*Delegates Bill Hamilton (R), Mike Burdiss (D), Linda Longstreth (D), Nancy Peoples Guthrie (D), Mary M. Poling (D), Sam Argento (D), Joe Talbott (D), Lidella Hrutkay (D), Charlene Marshall (D), Dale Martin (D), and Margaret Anne Staggers (D), and SenatorsÂ Jon Blair Hunter (D) and Randy White (D).