(Bruce H. Vail is a former journalist who has commented at FDL in the past under the name laborite57. Based in Baltimore, MD, he has covered labor issues for a number of specialized publications, and has also worked as a union staffer.)

Tomorrow afternoon, Congress will once again take up new legislative proposals to improve coal mine safety. After decades of repeated mining disasters, countless unnecessary deaths and injuries, and continual demands for remedial action, can Congress finally get mining safety legislation right?

The outward signs are not encouraging. Congress passed its first mine safety law during the presidential administration of Benjamin Harrison (1891) and has tried again and again to strengthen the safety laws, most recently in 2006. But all of the efforts of the intervening 115 years couldn’t save the lives of the 29 men who perished April 5 in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.V. The cause of that disaster is believed to be a massive methane explosion, hardly a new phenomenon in coal mining and an imminently preventable cause of death.

Rep. George Miller

Rep. George Miller

It is the April 5 tragedy that has prompted the proposed new legislation, jointly sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA). In crafting the new law, Miller and Harkin worked closely with Joe Main, President Obama’s appointee as head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The proposed legislation is remarkable because it clearly assumes that responsibility for the deaths at Upper Big Branch lies entirely with the mine’s owner/operator – Massey Energy Inc., and its odious chief executive Don Blankenship.

Below are the six main features of the legislation, as summarized by Rep. Miller’s staff at the House Committee on Education and Labor (Miller is chairman of House committee, while Harkin is chairman of the Senate counterpart). All are aimed directly or indirectly at Massey, but note particularly the fourth and final paragraphs:

  1. Making Mines with Serious and Repeated Violations Safe – Criteria for ‘pattern of violations’ sanctions would be revamped to ensure that the nation’s most dangerous mine operations improve safety dramatically.
  2. Ensuring Irresponsible Operators are Held Accountable – Maximum criminal and civil penalties would be increased and operators would be required to pay penalties in a timely manner.
  3. Giving MSHA Better Enforcement Tools – MSHA would be given the authority to subpoena documents and testimony. The agency could seek a court order to close a mine when there is a continuing threat to the health and safety of miners. MSHA could require more training of miners in unsafe mines. Increased rock dusting would be required to prevent coal dust explosions.
  4. Protecting Miners Who Speak out on Unsafe Conditions – Miners would be granted the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. Protections for workers who speak out about unsafe conditions would be strengthened, and miners would not lose pay for safety-related closures. In addition, miners would receive protections so they can speak freely during investigations.
  5. Increasing MSHA’s Accountability – The legislative outline provides for an independent investigation of the most serious accidents. It would require that mine personnel are well-qualified, and ensure that inspections are comprehensive and well-targeted. Additionally, it requires pre-shift reviews of mine conditions and communication to ensure that appropriate safety information is transmitted.
  6. Guaranteeing Basic Protections in All Other Workplaces – To ensure that all workplaces have basic protections, whistleblower protections would be strengthened, criminal and civil penalties would be increased, and hazard abatement would be sped up. In addition, victims of accidents and their family members would be provided greater rights during investigations and enforcement actions.
MSHA Administrator Joe Main

MSHA Administrator Joe Main

The fourth feature alone is just stunning in its implication: It would give the miners themselves the right to close mines that THEY – not the owners or the government – believe to be unsafe. And they would be protected from losing their jobs, or even losing a days’ pay for such safety closures. In essence, it would guarantee to all miners the same rights that are now enjoyed only by workers organized into strong unions. This revolutionary feature will be attributed to MSHA’s Joe Main, who spent many years as a safety expert at the United Mine Workers before being appointed to his current post. The UMW, not coincidentally, has long been a bitter adversary of Massey Energy’s Blankenship.

And the sixth feature would transform the bill from a simple mine safety measure to a fundamental expansion of the workplace safety regime everywhere the country. It seems aimed at creating a sort of “Workplace Safety Bill of Rights” that is long overdue, and will almost certainly be opposed by business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturing.

Predictably, the Republicans are already cool to the new mine bill. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), the ranking member on the Senate labor committee, appeared wary of criticizing increased mine safety per se, but nevertheless slammed the Democrats for what he insisted was undue partisanship by Miller and Harkin.

“We are disappointed that the Democrats have chosen to move forward in partisan fashion on this important issue…. Instead of pursuing that productive approach, Democrats have chosen to introduce a sweeping piece of legislation that affects every business in this country and only amplifies the adversarial role of the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations and MSHA, without increasing safety….Whether Republicans are included and minority ideas are incorporated as we move forward will be a clear demonstration of the Majority’s true intention of developing a bill that we can all support and that will make a difference in the name of safety.”

Now Enzi is a particularly dull-witted legislator and it is predictable that he would think worker safety is a partisan issue. In his clouded mind, any expansion of workplace safety rights is anti-business, and therefore anti-Republican. His criticism is not a good sign for the future of the Miller-Harkin bill. More opposition should appear at the Tuesday House hearing, where MSHA’s Main is scheduled to appear. The ferocity of the attacks on Main will provide an early indicator on whether any effective improvement in coal mine safety is possible this year…or anytime in the foreseeable future.