Thursday, June 09, 2016

Retired coal miner with black lung disease fights for safety in the mines as a miners' representative

Few coal miners are designated miners' representatives, a status that allows them to accompany "federal officials when they inspect the mine’s safety, pointing out hazards that need to be fixed," Dave Jamieson reports for The Huffington Post. Created by Congress in 1977 after 26 miners were killed in Kentucky, the mine safety law "empowers miners by giving them a role in the enforcement of the law. After all, no one knows a mine better than a miner who works there. It takes only two miners to designate someone a miners’ rep through the Mine Safety and Health Administration. And yet very few miners actually take on the duty. ... A diligent miners’ rep can get his own mine fined and even shut down, all in the name of protecting his colleagues from disaster. Many coal companies shun miners’ reps."

"Celeste Monforton, a workplace safety expert and former MSHA employee who’s investigated mining disasters, said only a 'very small fraction' of non-union mines have representatives who walk with inspectors," Jamieson writes. Monforton told him, “It’s such a unique protection. It’s really unfortunate that more miners don’t understand what it is and how they can really take advantage of it.”

Michael 'Flip' Wilson
One person taking advantage of the opportunity is retired Kentucky coal miner Michael "Flip" Wilson, who after working for Armstrong Coal's Parkway Mine in Western Kentucky for 40 years now suffers from black lung disease, Jamieson writes. "With unions no longer a presence in Kentucky coal country—the last union mine there shut down last year—Wilson is demonstrating how miners can wield the law themselves to make their mines safer, so long as they’re willing to confront the company."  (Armstrong map: its Kentucky mines; click on image for larger version)

"Wilson has been driving the 70 miles round trip to and from Parkway up to four times a week since he stopped working at the mine," Jamieson writes. "He often waits for federal inspectors to arrive so he can accompany them on their rounds. Motivated by his own experience with black lung, Wilson continues to point out dangers, which often results in fines for his former employer."

"For most of his four-decade career, Wilson wasn’t even aware of mine-safety laws, let alone helping to enforce them," Jamieson writes. "Wherever he worked, he tended to skirt safety precautions for the sake of production, just like many of his co-workers and supervisors did. He obeyed the unspoken rule of every mine he worked in: The coal must flow, or you must go. But over time, he came to know many workers who were hurt or killed on the job. And eventually, he had a hard time breathing. He had a chest X-ray done and found out he’d developed black lung disease due to years of exposure to high levels of coal dust."

Wilson, who said typically two to three violations are found during each of his Armstrong tours—Parkway has 400 violations since June 2015—told Jamieson, “I’ve seen enough people hurt in the mines in my time, especially the young boys. Matter of fact, I’ve packed some of ‘em out. I just want to make sure that the mine is running safe and that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. I’m thinking about the men and the safety of everybody up there. I don’t wanna see nobody hurt, but I know how the company is operating.”

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