MSHA cracking down on whistleblower discrimination - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

MSHA cracking down on whistleblower discrimination

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A basic right provided by today's mining laws is the ability to speak up about treacherous health and safety concerns without fear of reprisal from an employer.

According to a news release from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the agency has filed more than 39 requests during fiscal year 2012 for temporary reinstatements on behalf of miners. The number is the highest of any year.

Miners can file the temporary reinstatement requests to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission when they believe they have been discriminated against in the form of a suspension, layoff, discharge or other action when engaging in a protected activity, such as filing a health or safety complaint or refusing to work in conditions believed to be unsafe.

Fear of job loss has historically been considered one of the primary factors that enable poor mining conditions leading to disasters such as the one that happened in 2010 at Upper Big Branch, which claimed the lives of 29 coal miners in Raleigh County.

"Issues relating to fears of discrimination and retaliation came to light during congressional hearings held in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster," the release states. "Statements from miners and family members of the miners who died indicated that mine employees had been reluctant to speak out about safety conditions in existence prior to the April 2010 explosion, fearing retaliation by management. Testimony from UBB employees presented during MSHA's investigation also supports those claims."

An independent panel review of the Upper Big Branch disaster concluded, among other deficiencies, operation of the Massey Energy owned mine was in part due to worker intimidation and a practice of discouraging reporting safety concerns.

"When the MSHA inspector comes to a Massey mine, the only people accompanying him are Massey company people," testified former miner and father of a UBB victim,  Gary Quarles, before the House Committee on Education and Labor in 2010. "No coal miner at the mine can point out areas of concern to the MSHA inspector. In fact, for a miner working for Massey, the feeling is, if an MSHA inspector fails to say anything about all of these safety problems, what right do I have to say anything about them, and I definitely would be terminated or retaliated against if I said anything."

According to the MSHA release, the department filed an average of 26 complaints per year from Oct. 2009 to September 2012, up from seven per year from Oct. 1003 to Sept. 2009.

If it is determined that the miner's complaint was legitimate, the commission can order reinstatement of the miner under Section 105(c) of the mining act.