By Kathleen Rest, Union of Concerned Scientists
Three and counting. That’s how many coal miners have been killed on this job so far in the first two and a half months of this year. Two in West Virginia and one in Kentucky. You don’t know them, but you can be sure that their families and friends are grieving and heartbroken. They were expecting them to come home after their shifts.
Their deaths are just the most visible of the tragedies that befall our nation’s coal miners every year. In 2016, there were nine fatalities and 1,260 reportable cases of workplace injury in the US coal mining industry. We’re not talking scratches here, but serious injuries that require medical treatment, including injuries that result in loss of consciousness, lost time, temporary job reassignment, or wholesale transfer to another job.
And then there are work-related illnesses, which can be notoriously harder to track as many take years to develop. For coal miners, these include coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (Black Lung)—a devastating, irreversible, and often deadly lung disease—as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases like bronchitis and emphysema.
An investigative report by National Public Radio recently revealed a major resurgence of black lung in Appalachia. This includes a cluster of 60 cases at a single eastern Kentucky radiology practice from January 2015–August 2016!
Sad and angry
These incidents sadden me greatly. As a former Acting Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and a former Chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), I know that these and other workplace fatalities, injuries, and disease shouldn’t happen; they are largely preventable.
But I’m more than sad. I’m dumbfounded and angry. Last week, the Republican-controlled Kentucky legislature approved a measure that sets coal mine safety back decades, cutting back annual inspections from four to as few as one. And West Virginia is gearing up to seriously weaken mine safety standards and inspections in their state. You can read about it here, here, here, and here.
Meanwhile coal country legislators are trumpeting federal worker protections for coal miners—a supreme irony given that our president is proposing to cut the very federal department (Labor) that is responsible for federal inspection of our mines.
Coal mining is still a highly dangerous occupation. Lost in the debate over the use of coal and our needed transition to a renewable energy future is the continuing toll that coal mining takes on the workers that mine it. These workers are already facing the industry’s precarious economic future—and thus the welfare of their own families and communities. They shouldn’t have to fight for their own safety. Do we really think its’s right – and even smart – to bolster company profits at the expense of worker safety?
Coal mines today. Maybe your workplace tomorrow.
These rollbacks of public and worker protections should surprise no one—the states are clearly emboldened by the anti-regulatory, industry-first furor coming from the White House and Congress. They are also harbingers of how these sorts of actions could affect your workplace as well.
See for example, the President’s ill-conceived two-for-one Executive Order that planted this anti-regulatory flag as an almost first order of business. Or the imminent congressional effort to roll back the ability of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to cite employers for record keeping failures. (Record keeping may sound less consequential; it’s anything but.)
And be wary, very wary, of congressional attempts to undermine the role that science plays in policy making and public protections. Bills like the HONEST Act (Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act), the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny), and the Regulatory Accountability Act may have high-sounding names, but they are designed to seriously erode the regulatory and science advisory processes that give us the safeguards we all count on. And when you hear about regulatory rollbacks or reforms, wonky as they may sound—take a moment to think about what would be lost. For coal miners, that may be their lives or limbs.
We have a voice. Let’s use it.
Let’s keep this top of mind: Our elected officials work for us—we the people. We need to let them know what we think and what we expect of them in terms of protecting and promoting our interests—not treating us as secondary to the interests of corporate and business leaders who generally have more resources and access to the halls of power. And then we need to hold our elected officials accountable for what they do and what they don’t do.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is there to help keep you informed about attacks on science, engaged, and to provide tools and resources to help maximize your effectiveness. We’re all in this together. Your voice matters.