(Updated 3/2/09 below)
The U.S. economy is in the tank—-the national unemployment rate for January wasÂ 7.6% and 46 States are facing serious budget shortfalls—–but these hard times are NOÂ EXCUSE to roll-back worker safety protections.Â Â Yet, that is exactly whatÂ some Kentucky lawmakers areÂ proposing for workers employed atÂ smallÂ underground coal mines.
Just two years ago,Â Kentucky adopted new rules requiringÂ all underground coal mining operations to have at least two workers on-siteÂ (at least one underground) who are also trained as emergency medical technicians (EMTs).Â The safetyÂ improvement came in response to the senseless (and fully preventable) death of Bud Morris, 29 whoÂ bled to death underground atÂ the H&D MineÂ Â on December 30, 2005.Â Â By all accounts, Mr. MorrisÂ would have survived the crushing injuries to his legs had first-aid been administered properly and promptly.Â Left behind was his wife Stella and a 2 year old son.Â The mine safety improvement of two-EMTs rule received high-praise in 2007, withÂ one Kentucky lawmaker boasting to an Associated PressÂ reporter that hisÂ State was “setting the example in the nation.”Â Â Â But now that same State representative,Â coal-mine operatorÂ Keith HallÂ (D-Pike) is leading the charge to dismantle the two-EMT rule.Â His legislation,Â HB 119, would roll-back the protection, by requiring only oneÂ EMTÂ on-siteÂ for workshifts ofÂ 18 or fewer coal miners.Â
âThese small operators lose day after day of production because one MET doesnât show up.Â The companies are not allowed to operate if they donât have two underground METs.Â I know of operations that have lost three days of production due to one MET having flu.Â When that legislation was done, they never considered the small owner back in the mountains. This is not about what it costs operators. It is about us not running coal because we donât have two METâs.â
This sounds like ridiculous belly-aching to me.Â Why don’t these “small owners back in the mountains” get themselves a couple more METs?Â Â An editorial in the Lexington Herald Leader explains how easy and cheap it is for the coal operators to beef up on METs.
“The training is free [and provided by the State].Â METS are typically paid no more than an extra $1 an hour.Â And only one has to be underground when miners are working. You’d think mines would want as many of them as possible.”Â
In my neck of the woods, I’ve an analogy:Â Â Food establishments in Virginia are required to have certified food safety managers on-site at all times supervising theÂ handling and preparation of food. Â Â If you don’t have a certified manager on-site—becauseÂ she had childcare complications or his car broke down—you can’t serve food.Â In Mr. Hall’s parlance, you’re out of luck running burgers.Â Â Â Â
Restaurant owners (many are small businesses) manage to comply with the requirement just fine by ensuring thatÂ several employees receive the food safety training and certification.Â Â Restaurants who are out of compliance with the requirement receive a citation, but worse, they areÂ listed each week in the localÂ newspaper with the unflattery label “noÂ certified food safety manager on-site.”Â Believe me,Â people think twice about eating at these scafflow outfits.Â Moreover, imagine if lawmakers decided toÂ allowÂ restaurants with fewer than 18 employeesÂ lesserÂ requirements forÂ on-site certified food safety managers?Â Â Ah…not a good idea.
Likewise, it’s a bad idea to permit small underground mines to have lesser emergency response capabilities.Â Â Bud Morris’ widow, Stella MorrisÂ and other worker safety advocates sent a letterÂ today to every member of the Kentucky legislature.Â They urgedÂ lawmakers toÂ to rejectÂ HB 119, and remindedÂ them thatÂ eight coal miners died in Kentucky coal mines last year.
“Now is not the time to cut back on safety measures that were so recently enacted.Â Saving a few dollars for a coal mine operator is not worth risking a miner’s life.”
No matter what KY State Rep. Hall,Â and co-sponsorsÂ Ted Edmonds (D-Breathitt), and Ancel “Hardrock” Smith Â (D-Knott, Letcher) claim, this bill is nothing more thanÂ protecting the interest of coal companies at theÂ expense ofÂ coal miners.Â Â I fear we will be seeing more of this—as companies’ bottom lines shrink (or turn red,) the pressure will mount toÂ cut-back onÂ measures toÂ ensureÂ workers’ health and safety.Â We must be vigilant and insist that OSHA, MSHA and other public health regulatory agencies rejectÂ employers’ excuses about the shakyÂ economy as a reasonÂ for exposingÂ their employees toÂ serious hazards.Â Â Despite theÂ dismal economic times, workers must not be forced to choose between a dangerous job, or no job at all.Â Our nation is better than that.
For more on HB 119 and the coal operator/legislator who is sponsoring it, readÂ Protecting Bud Morris’ LegacyÂ at Ken Ward’s Coal Tattoo.Â
Update (2/25/09):Â Louisville Courier-Journal columnist David HawpeÂ providesÂ some historical perspective to thisÂ effort to roll-backÂ worker safety protections.Â InÂ Â Remember What Ruby Said, he reminds readers “afterÂ every step forward — including state and federal safety laws enacted after multiple disasters in 2006, including at Darby No. 1 in Harlan County — there’s pushback.”
Update (3/3/09): The Lexington Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reportsÂ that State Rep. Keith Hall lead sponsor of HB 119 has had one of his very own mining operations shut down by state inspectors for failing to have the two required MET’s on duty.Â Hall’s mine is run by contract-mine operator Kimara Coal, and it
“was Kimara that the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing cited and shut down at 9:50 a.m. last Aug. 19 for not having an MET or a foreman on the property while coal was produced inside the mine, according to state records.Â About two hours later, a foreman and two METs arrived at the mine, so the problem was considered resolved.”
“Kimara co-owner John Biliter said Mine #1 employs 7-8Â miners per shift. Kimara was at a disadvantage the morning inspectors arrived because one MET didn’t come to work and the other â who was also the foreman â abruptly quit and left, Biliter said.Â Usually, Kimara respects the law and stops mining when it can’t find two METs, which is an all too common obstacle, he said.Â ‘At Phelps, we probably miss about four or five days a month because we don’t have METs.Â It makes it real difficult.'”
I suppose when you run a shoe-string operation, it would serve you well to have all employees trained as METs.