A Workers Memorial Day Message: A Roadmap To Protect Workers

A Workers Memorial Day Message

Roadmap to Protect Workers 

The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 contains a clear mission - preventing illnesses, injuries and deaths at the nation’s mines. During the Obama Administration, we at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) took bold strategic action to make the mission of the agency a reality across the country. Simply put, these actions saved lives ― more miners returned home to their families safe and healthy during our tenure than ever before.

As the Trump Administration begins to grapple with the obligation of enforcing worker protections, they will be risking workers’ lives and livelihoods if they ignore this new road map. The key principles in the road map that guided the Obama Administration’s success across all of our worker protection agencies included: (1) mission-driven leadership, (2) protecting workers from retaliation when they stand up for their rights and the rights of their coworkers, (3) making full use of the enforcement tools that Congress provided in our statutes; (4) designing data-driven strategic enforcement plans; and (5) grounding all policymaking in evidence and stakeholder engagement. My job was to apply these principles at MSHA:

Mission-driven leadership:  Implementation of these key principles began with mission-driven leadership.  Even though I came to the job with 40 years of experience in mine safety and emergency response, I learned every day from the dedicated career staff at MSHA.  They were my constant partners in ensuring that the agency fulfilled its statutory mission, starting with our core obligation to complete all health and safety inspections mandated by the Mine Act at each of the nation’s more than 13,000 mines. Despite budget constraints, we met this obligation each of the eight years of our Administration. The least the Trump Administration can do is to devote sufficient funding, personnel and resources to continue this mandated obligation.

Worker voice:  The importance of worker voice took on new significance after the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster, which claimed the lives of 29 miners.  In the investigation of this heartbreaking disaster, we discovered that the UBB miners knew about the dangers in their mine, but were silenced by management’s systematic intimidation. Our Administration aggressively and successfully enforced protections against safety-related retaliation in a record number of cases. 

All the tools in the toolbox:  We used the agency’s powers under the Mine Act to their fullest extent. In some cases, we used enforcement powers Congress gave MSHA that had never before been effectively exercised. For example, a law on the books unused since 1977 authorizing MSHA to shut down areas of mines with a “pattern of violations” was finally put to full use to rein in chronic violators. We launched a special “impact inspection” enforcement program that continuously reviewed possible indicators of problem mines so MSHA could quickly intervene to protect miners, which we did over 1,200 times. We launched the End Black Lung Act Now enforcement, education and rulemaking campaign to end the terrible black lung disease that claimed over 78,000 miners since 1968.  

Data-driven strategic enforcement:  We robustly used data to ensure that our enforcement resources were deployed where they would have the biggest impact.  The “Rules to Live By” initiative focused agency enforcement and industry attention on violations commonly associated with mining deaths.  We diligently tracked injury and fatality information to proactively spot troubling trends. In 2015, our intensive tracking alerted us to a troubling escalation in fatalities at metal and nonmetal mines. After we intervened with enhanced enforcement, education and outreach, the industry went a record-breaking 133 days without a single miner dying on the job.

Stakeholder engagement:  Extensive stakeholder engagement and assistance in advance of new initiatives became our trademark. We created several web-based tools so mine operators could track their own compliance and their rates of serious violations.  My leadership team and I constantly attended meetings, made mine visits and held dialogues with mining stakeholders across the country. Our emphasis on stakeholder engagement included going to great lengths to make a clear and transparent case for each of our proposed regulatory reforms.

As we look back, our Administration ended with the lowest injury rates, lowest fatal rates, and fewest deaths in mining history and no mine disasters for 7 years.  Unhealthy coal mine dusts levels fell to all time lows.  Mines meeting our screening criteria for pattern of violations enforcement – our best measure of the worst operators ― dropped from 51 mines in 2010 to zero in 2016. Overall, mine site compliance also improved from 2010 through 2016 as serious (significant and substantial) violations found at mines fell 61% and overall safety violations fell 43 %.

I’m proud of what we accomplished and the lives we saved.  We know how to make mines safe – mine disasters are not inevitable or an inherent part of the job. I’m happy to share our strategy with the Trump Administration – I’ve got no pride of authorship.  I hope that the Trump Administration will be as committed to the mission of the Department to protect workers as we were. American workers deserve no less. If these successful principles are abandoned, American workers’ lives and livelihoods will be at risk. On this Workers Memorial Day, and with the confirmation of a new Secretary of Labor, Let’s make sure we put the safety and health of America’s miners first.

Joseph A Main, Former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health 2009-2017.

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