June 3, 2014 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

Coal miner turned whistleblower Justin Greenwell is at the center of a Huffington Post article investigating how the mining industry cheats the worker safety system. Greenwell, who’s now in a legal battle to get back his mining job with Armstrong Coal, a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Armstrong Energy, tipped off federal mine inspectors that the company was submitting misleading coal dust samples to regulators. The samples are used to determine whether a mine is in compliance with safety and health standards designed to protect miners from black lung disease. According to a 2008 posting from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 10,000 miners had died from black lung disease in the prior decade. Unfortunately, the article exposes a systematic disregard for worker safety. Reporter Dave Jamieson writes:

On Jan. 24 this year, Greenwell’s allegations of inaccurate sampling apparently proved true. That day, officials with the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) performed what’s known in the industry as a “blitz.” Pursuing an anonymous tip, they showed up unannounced to inspect the mine. According to witnesses, supervisors at the mine went into a panic, ordering workers to shut down their machines and stop running coal.

There was good reason for the freakout. According to Labor Department documents, Armstrong miners weren’t wearing their coal dust pumps. These are the devices that measure the amount of dust in a mine’s atmosphere; when a company is sampling dust levels, miners are supposed to wear them for a full shift as they work. At Parkway (the mine where Greenwell worked), the MSHA report says an inspector found the two dust pumps hanging away from where the coal was being mined and at the power center, where the air is much cleaner. The pumps were guaranteed to register dust levels much lower than those to which miners were actually being exposed.

The MSHA inspector cited Armstrong with “reckless disregard” for the law, saying the company demonstrated an “unwarrantable failure” in the incident — the agency’s most serious class of safety violation.

Cheating on dust samples has been something of an open secret in the coal industry for years, a fact acknowledged by MSHA. Industry watchdogs suspect that some mines often operate with dust levels above the 2.0 milligram level, let alone the new, lower threshold of 1.5. But it’s likely certain operators have avoided fines by submitting unreliable samples.

Jamieson’s article also chronicles how workers are coerced into helping mining operators falsify their dust samples. He interviewed miner Mike “Flip” Wilson, who talked about the pressure to turn in clean dust samples. In the article, Wilson said: “It ain’t good for the man, but it’s good for the company. The way they look at it, there ain’t a man down there that can’t be replaced.” The article notes that the Department of Labor recently unveiled new regulations to reduce the risk of black lung — regulations that The Pump Handle’s own Celeste Monforton described as the “most significant worker health and safety regulation that gets out of the Obama administration” — however, the agency will still rely on mine operators to monitor dust levels.

More on how the mining industry undercuts worker safety is at the Center for Public Integrity.

In other news:

Los Angeles Times: In a huge victory for low-wage workers, the Seattle City Council unanimously voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour — the highest in the country.

Journal Sentinel: Eight workers were injured at Johnson Brass & Machine Foundry in Wisconsin after a “machine failure” caused molten brass to spray out, burning workers and starting a fire. Writer Don Behm reported that two workers were airlifted to a burn center. A related article in the Huffington Post noted that during the 2012 presidential campaign, foundry president Lance Johnson complained that workplace safety inspections were burdensome job killers.

New York Law Journal: A judge rules in favor of a carpenter who fell off a ladder during a job at Bloomingdale’s in New York City after his supervisor refused to let him retrieve a moveable scaffold. In the decision, the judge wrote that “labor law, recognizing the realities of construction and demolition work, does not require a worker to demand an adequate safety device by challenging his or her supervisor’s instructions and withstanding hostile behavior. To place that burden on employees would effectively eviscerate the protections that the legislature put in place.”

Boston Globe: In partnership with ProPublica, writers Megan Woolhouse and Michael Grabell chronicle the death of Daniel Collazo, who died after getting caught in a machine at a Tribe hummus plant in Taunton, Mass. They wrote that Collazo’s death “could have been prevented if the plant had followed a standard safety practice known as ‘lock out/tag out.’ It requires employees to be trained to cut power to industrial machinery before cleaning activities begin.”

Salon: Former labor secretary Robert Reich compares the movement to end income inequality and improve conditions for low-wage workers to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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