Mine safety, unions, and social responsibility

Monday’s terrible explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia has resulted in the confirmed deaths of 25 miners, with 4 still unaccounted for as rescue and recovery efforts continue.  As details unfold, I’d like to consider two broader points related to mine worker safety.

Unions

Kudos to Newsweek for running a piece on its web edition by Jeneen Interlandi, raising the question of how unions can help to ensure safer working conditions for miners:

While above-ground equipment operators enjoy safer working conditions, underground or deep miners—like those killed in Monday’s explosion—still face a daily litany of dangers, and many of them insist unions still have a role to play in keeping them safe. “A union mine is a safer place, period,” says Chuck Nelson, a volunteer community organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington, W.Va., and a former unionized deep miner. “Union miners have representation; they have a voice. They can report problems, file grievances, and look out for their union brothers.”

Activists and area miners say Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has a stern reputation for union busting: firing union workers in some cases, and shutting down entire mines that were unionized in others, a charge the company has denied. In 2007, the National Labor Relations Board determined that the company’s refusal to hire union miners was illegal.

Social responsibility

Against this backdrop are issues of law and social responsibility pertaining to miners who perform these dangerous jobs. West Virginia University law professor Anne Marie Lofaso raised a series of questions in a law review article that emerged from a symposium on mine worker safety held in response to the 2006 Sago Mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 12 miners.  Here is a portion of the summary of her article:

…The remarks in particular and the symposium in general use the Sago Disaster as a springboard for examining the various and complex questions related to the broader question – What role does or should the law play in protecting workers’ health and safety. This, of course, leads to the obvious question – Does regulation work? An administrative law and comparative approach to the regulatory issue helps to identify best practices that may save lives. But more profound questions quickly surface. What do we citizens of a “just” society owe workers who daily risk their lives for our collective comfort? If the technology is available to save workers’ lives, why hasn’t it been made available?

***

Newsweek article

Lofaso article

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