When I arrived at the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2009, I made it a top priority to beef up enforcement of anti-discrimination provisions contained in the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 Act. Section 105(c) of the act protects miners, their representatives and applicants for employment from retaliation for identifying safety and health hazards, asking for MSHA inspections, or refusing to engage in an unsafe act.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many fear retaliation by their supervisors for exercising those rights.
We saw this through the course of the investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, and we continue to see it as we investigate discrimination complaints submitted to MSHA. Last year, we filed 46 temporary reinstatement requests and 34 discrimination cases on behalf of miners across the country − the most ever in a year.
Here’s a recent example: A miner working as an electrician at the New Elk Mine in Trinidad, Colo., contacted MSHA about hazardous conditions along a beltline that he claimed were not being properly addressed by his supervisors. The day after he filed the complaint, MSHA issued several citations to the mine. The electrician’s position and shift were changed multiple times over the next three weeks and, not long after, he was terminated. He then filed a discrimination complaint with MSHA.
Following a hearing before a judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, New Elk Coal Co. has agreed to pay approximately $115,000 to the miner. The company also has agreed to pay MSHA a civil penalty of $10,000.
All miners, supervisors and contractors have the right to identify hazardous conditions and refuse unsafe work without fear of discrimination or retaliation, plain and simple. Hopefully, this case will serve as a reminder to all mine operators.
For more information on rights in the workplace, including the Miners’ Rights Handbook and online training tools, visit www.msha.gov.
Joseph Main is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.