Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Saturday, April 29, 2006


Union Mines Are Safer Mines

Union mines are safer than non-union mines explains Charles McCollester, Director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration levies fines but rarely collects and fails to go to court to enforce.

In a non-union mine, the inspector has no back-up. It's his word against the company. The union has the right to accompany inspectors and provide documentation and testimony. The heart of the union presence, the local Mine Committee, meets monthly, receives additional training, has the right to inspect any part of the mine including its access, and must perform full inspections at least every two months.

Critically, workers in a union mine are not afraid to speak. In a non-union operation, asking questions or challenging company mining practices or safety procedures can lead to termination. The company's fear of knowledgeable, independent inspections was illustrated in their attempt to bar the entry of UMWA representatives at Sago.

Union mines resist efforts to cut corners including the installation of dubious products like foam Omega blocks that the government now allows to replace previously mandated two-foot thick poured concrete or block walls.

Two successive roof fall deaths at the non-union Rosebud mine in Armstrong County were in an area with recognized poor roof conditions, but the company was not test drilling to effectively gauge conditions. It continued to take deep cuts (in excess of 20 feet) using 36- and 42-inch roof bolts when conditions called for longer ones. The failure to drill test bores was a contributing factor in the mine flooding at the non-union Quecreek operation.
McCollester alos authored a fascinating article on on the called so-called miraculous rescue of Less Than Miraculous: The Near-Disaster at Quecreek Mine Citing many of the warnings that the company had before that mine was flooded, McCollester wrote:
Black Wolf owner-operator David Rebuck called the flooding an "act of God" in one local TV interview. As McCollester wrote, "The flood of testimonials to the mercy of God threatens to obscure the very human factors that led to the near-disaster. God may well have had a hand in the rescue, but human avarice and more than a century of fierce corporate manipulation and struggle for profit and control were behind the wall of water that swept into the Quecreek mine."
In that near-disaster as well, McCollester writes, a union would have helped:
If Quecreek had been union, workers might have been more candid about company responsibility immediately after the rescue, when some of them supported management's claim of normal mining conditions. If the union had been recognized, the workers could have refused to continue advancing--without fear for their jobs--as they saw conditions worsening.

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