June 8, 2016 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

When you retire, would you spend the time and the gas to drive 70 miles several times a week to your former worksite to ensure the company is following the law? The Huffington Post’s Dave Jamieson profiles a 62-year old Kentucky coal miner who does exactly that.

Flip Wilson worked as a coal miner for 40 years. He told Jamieson that over his career he didn’t know much about his safety rights and didn’t question unsafe practices. Jamieson writes:

“He obeyed the unspoken rule of every mine he worked in: The coal must flow, or you must go.”

Two years ago, Wilson was diagnosed with black lung disease. The Mine Act provides a special protection for coal miners who want to continue working despite the illness: they have the right to work in a less dusty job at no loss of pay. He was harassed for exercising this right and that’s when he decided enough was enough.

Jamieson writes:

“As an elder statesman inside the mine, and with little time left on the job, Wilson felt he had an obligation to speak out for the sake of others who may fear being fired — even if it meant alienating some of those same people. Facing a retirement filled with hacking and wheezing, he wanted to make sure the miners behind him didn’t face the same fate.”

Wilson took advantage of a little used provision in the Mine Act allows which coal miners to designate a “miners’ representative.” It’s a simple process: two miners write a letter to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) saying that they designate someone to be their “miners’ representative.” It can be a fellow miner or anyone else of the miners choosing. The miners’ rep has the right to participate in MSHA inspections and other related safety activities. Even though Wilson retired earlier this year, he continues to serve as the miners’ rep at Armstrong Coal’s Parkway Mine in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. Jamieson notes that the mine has received more than 400 citations in the last year for safety violations.

Flip Wilson told Jamieson:

“’I’ve seen enough people hurt in the mines in my time, especially the young boys. Matter of fact, I’ve packed some of ‘em out,’ Wilson said. ‘I just want to make sure that the mine is running safe and that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. I’m thinking about the men and the safety of everybody up there. I don’t wanna see nobody hurt, but I know how the company is operating.’”

Read Jamieson’s account to learn how the company responded to having a knowledgeable and empowered former employee serving as a miners’ rep. [Hint: they didn’t like it.]

In my experience, very few miners take advantage of the right to designate a miners’ safety rep. and that’s especially true with the rarity of union in the U.S. Too few miners understand their safety rights, let alone feel comfortable exercising them.

Dave Jamieson’s excellent feature on Flip Wilson reminds me of another remarkable coal miner profiled by the reporter. Jamieson wrote in 2011 about Scott Howard, 55, a safety whistleblower many times over. Howard has spoken up and taken on several coal operators because they gamble with coal miners’ lives.  Howard has prevailed every time but not without great physical, financial, and emotional risk to himself and his family.

I’m admiring Flip Wilson and Scott Howard for their commitment to the safety of their fellow workers. I’m thanking Dave Jamieson for sharing these important stories.

 

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