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President Obama draws attention to workplace safety

Yesterday, in honor of Workers’ Memorial Day, President Obama for the first time issued a proclamation observing the day.  Workers’ Memorial Day commemorates the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is charged with protecting workers from safety and health hazards.

Several recent tragedies have drawn significant attention to workplace safety.  On April 5, there was an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners.  And last week, an explosion on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf Coast off Louisiana, in which 11 workers are missing and presumed dead.

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said that Massey Energy, the mine company that owned the Upper Big Branch mine, is “run like it was 1921.” The mine operator had been cited nearly 500 times in 2009 for violations of the Mine Safety and Health Act.  But despite being shut down 61 times since the beginning of 2009, the dangerous conditions at the mine were allowed to continue.

Improvements are needed to both the Mine Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act).  In 2008, the House passed the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER) Act, but it was not taken up in the Senate.  The S-MINER Act would have increased penalties and given the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) increased authority to shut down mines with a pattern of violations. But there are other problems the S-MINER Act would not address.  One of these problems is the backlog of 16,000 contested citations.

The OSH Act is also woefully out of date.  In a hearing in the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, witnesses discussed the need to update whistleblower protections contained in the Act.  The Protecting America’s Workers Act would upgrade these protections and establish other needed reforms to OSHA.

Lena Pons is a policy analyst at Public Citizen.