Safety First!

The number of serious on-the-job accidents this year have yet again made very clear the urgent need for expanded and tightened government safety regulation. The toll on workers has been high, as President Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers union told the House Education and Labor Committee in mid-July.

Roberts noted the explosion at a mine in West Virginia that killed 29 coal miners, a blast at a refinery in Washington State that killed seven workers, the BP oil rig blast in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11, an explosion that killed six workers at an Energy Systems facility in Connecticut.

Those were but a very small sampling of the on-the-job accidents that kill nearly 6,000 US workers every year. More than two million other American workers are seriously injured yearly. And another 50,000 or more die yearly from cancer, lung and heart ailments, and other occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances.

The Mine Workers’ Roberts came before the House committee to urge passage of a bill, the Miner Safety and Health Act, that focuses on mine safety, but also includes provisions that would strengthen safety protections in all other workplaces.

Joe Main, who heads the federal Mine Safety and Health Agency, said the bill would do nothing less than “change the culture of safety in the mining industry, and put the health and safety of miners first.” That, indeed, would be a major shift in focus, a very much needed and most welcome shift.

It’s sad, but true, that the safety of miners has often been a secondary consideration of many mine owners and government regulators. Greater profit and productivity ­ not safety ­ has been the overriding concern, and far too many workers have suffered because of that.

Too many have been maimed, too many killed for lack of proper protections, some required by law but ignored, some not required at all, however essential they are.

The Mine Safety and Health Agency’s Main says the proposed law would give his agency the tools to make employers live up to their legal and moral obligation. And if they don’t meet their obligation, the agency would be empowered to step in to see that they do so.

As the AFL-CIO’s general counsel, Lynn Rinehart, told the House committee, the federal job safety laws ­ now 40 years old ­ are way out of date. They have never been significantly strengthened, Rinehart noted, and their penalties are slight compared to those imposed for violations of other labor laws.

What’s more, Rinehart said, the law gives workers little protection from employer retaliation against those who raise safety concerns. Current law, he added, “simply does not provide a sufficient deterrent against employers who would cut corners on safety and put workers in harm’s way.”

Among the bill’s most important provisions is one that would guarantee workers the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. That right is guaranteed in mineworker union contracts, and for good reason: Nonunion miners have long complained that they fear employer retaliation if they speak out about mine safety problems.

The bill would give the mine safety agency authority to close a mine if there’s a continuing threat to workers safety, and would subject mine owners to increased civil and criminal penalties for safety violations.

The AFL-CIO’s Rinehart noted that the median penalty for having working conditions that cause a fatality was a mere $5,000 in 2009. The penalties generally have been mere slaps on the wrist.

One of the most important parts of the proposed safety law would extend coverage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) to the millions of local and state government employees who are not covered by the law.

Sponsors of the proposed law face formidable opposition ­ the National Association of Manufacturers, US Chamber of Commerce, and nearly two dozen other industry groups whose members aren’t eager to spend money on safer workplaces.

The Bush administration was openly on the side of those groups. Safety laws were only lightly enforced ­ if enforced at all ­ by the Bush appointees who ran the federal safety agencies. Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s safety and health director, figures it will take years to reverse and undo the “many bad policies and practices that were put into place” under Bush.

It will, indeed, be a long time before the government can provide the full protection from on-the-job hazards that will continue to needlessly harm millions of American workers. But the proposed new safety law, and the worker-friendly Obama administration, give us a fighting chance to finally do what must be done if we are to have truly safe workplaces.