A group of advocates for miners and their families sent a rulemaking petition to MSHAÂ on February 1, asking the agency to improve its regulations governingÂ the training that mine workers receive aboutÂ their statutory rights.Â The Petition for Rulemaking was submitted by the West Virginia Mine Safety Project, the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, United Support & Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, and the United Mine Workers, and calls for significant improvements in the content and manner in which all U.S. mine workers—whether atÂ coal, gold, stone,Â or other mine or mill—learn about their rights, such asÂ expressingÂ concerns about hazards, refusing unsafe work, or anyÂ rights provided in the 1969 and 1977 federal mine safety and health lawsÂ .
The Petition recounts some of the legislative history of our laws to protect miners from workplace hazards, in particular,Â Congress’ recognition that workers protected from retaliation were empowered.Â TheÂ Senate Report (95-181, May 16, 1977)Â noted:
“If our national mine safety and health program is to be truly effective, miners will have to play an active part in the enforcement of the Act.Â The Committee is cognizant that if miners are to be encouraged to be active in matters of safety and health, they must be protected against any possible discrimination which they might suffer as a result of their participation.”
The rulemaking petition sent to MSHA notes:
“…many miners, especially those in non-union mines, have only vague knowledge of their statutory rights, if they have any knowledge at all.Â The organizational Petitioners have had contact with numerous miners who do not know that they can, for instance, voice concerns about workplace health and safety, refuse to perform unsafe work, review and give input to many aspects of an operator’s plans for mining, or speak with MSHA inspectors and investigators, all without retaliation.Â Many miners do not realize that they may designate a representative to perform numerous functions under the Mine Act, and that such a representative need not necessarily be affiliated with a labor union.”
The Petitioners ask that MSHA’s training regulations (Part 46 and Part 48) be revised in the following ways:
Require miners’ rights topics to be coveredÂ every year in miners’ 8-hour refresher training; currently, miners receive this training onlyÂ duringÂ “new miner” training which for many miners was 5, 10, 20 years ago.
Delineate the specific topics to be covered under miners’ rights, such as how to designate a miners’ representative, request and participate in inspections, receive pay when idled by an inspector’s withdrawal order, as well as the critically important provisionsÂ protecting themÂ from discrimination for exercising any of these rights.Â (The petition outlines 39 specific rights afforded to miners under the Mine Act.)
Prohibiting miner operators from providing the training to miners and prospective miners on these statutory rights, recommending instead that these topics be covered by MSHA, State regulators or others who are independent of mine operators or mine management.Â (View Petitioners’ news release)
This third recommendation is probably the most pioneeringÂ aspect of the Petition:Â Officials affiliated with mine management should not be the primary means by which miners learn about their rights.Â Think about it from a pure production standpoint—which would some employers rather have (1) a fully empowered workforceÂ that knows and exercises its rights or (2) a compliant workforceÂ that does what it’s told and keeps its mouths shut for fear of losingÂ jobs?Â Although things in the real world and in real workplaces are not so black and white, there is plenty of grey area in between facing mine operators.Â Â
The Mine Act requires mine operators to develop a training plan in accordance with regulations developed by MSHA, and the person conducting the training must be approved by MSHA.Â Â At many mines,Â a management officialÂ isÂ designated the “approved” instructor and this person conductsÂ the new miner training, refresher training, task training, and the like.Â
Under the Petitioners’ proposal, individuals such as an MSHAÂ or StateÂ inspector or an independent trainer could be called on to conduct the specialized miners’ rights training.Â In fact, I know a few injured miners,Â and daughters and mothers of miners, who would make excellent trainers on the topic of miners’ rights.Â
Celeste Monforton, MPH is the special projects coordinator with United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, one of the organizations which submitted this rulemaking petition to MSHA.Â She worked with Davitt McAteer on the Governor of WV’s investigation of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster and heard testimony fromÂ miners whichÂ illustratedÂ serious inadequacies in the conduct of training for miners.Â Â