Posted by Tula Connell to AFL-CIO NOW
Last week, a confluence of events reminded the U.S. public that it’s not just the food we eat that’s increasingly dangerous in our daily lives—inadequate safety on the job still is killing America’s working people.
The week ended with two more deaths from construction cranes, this time in Illinois. These fatalities came within days of four deaths due to a crane collapse in Houston—and raises to 18 the number of workers who died from crane-related deaths so far this year, according to an estimate by The Wall Street Journal, which doesn’t include bystander deaths.
Also last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued 120 citations for safety violations at the Imperial Sugar Co. plant in Port Wentworth, Ga., where high levels of sugar dust fueled an explosion Feb. 7 that killed 13 workers. OSHA fined the company $5 million—but refuses to set a dust safety standard to help prevent such incidents from occurring in the future.
In addition, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released a report on last year’s Crandall Canyon Mine disaster that killed six miners, placing the blame squarely on the coal mine operator, Murray Energy Co., and the engineering company hired to develop the mining plan. (Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray attributed the disaster to an earthquake and refused to go to Capitol Hill to testify before lawmakers.) The agency levied $1.6 million in fines against the mining company and $220,000 against the engineering firm. Three rescue workers later were killed trying to reach the site in Utah.
Juxtaposed to these events was a report by The Washington Post that revealed the Labor Department is fast-tracking a secretly written rule—long sought by the business community—that could increase workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals and toxic substances on the job and tie the hands of future administrations trying to improve workplace safety.
Even as workers die on the job, the Bush-Elaine Chao Labor Department plots to ensure the administration’s legacy of failed safety enforcement, minimal penalties and wink-and-nod appointments of wolves to guard safety agencies like MSHA continues long after it’s gone. Rewarding their corporate cronies is the gift that keeps giving.
And in the nepotistic Bush world, Chao’s husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell, is so beholden to the failed Bush ideology that he won’t even come to the aid of his own constituency: Kentucky coal miners.
A 2006 article by Lexington Herald-Leader staff writer John Cheves explores how McConnell and Chao have operated as a “tag team,” sacrificing worker safety in favor of employers’ interests.
When it comes to workplace-related issues such as mine safety, the McConnell-Chao marriage presents an intriguing target for industry donors. At the Labor Department, Chao has taken what some reports say is a relaxed attitude toward the regulation of coal mines and an approach that labor unions perceive as hostile.
Sometimes Chao achieves what her husband cannot in the Senate, such as a wage freeze her department instituted on certain farm workers.
Chao attends her husband’s fundraisers, chats with his donors and seeds her agency with his former aides. Chief among them is Deputy Labor Secretary Steven Law, whose last job was helping McConnell tap donors—Bob Murray included—at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. They collected an impressive $187 million in four years there.
The area of mine safety has taken the greatest beating since the Bush-Chao duo took office. In 2006, the year of the Sago Mine disaster, some 47 coal miners died in 2006—a 210 percent increase from 2005. Further:
- Chao’s Labor Department missed the Dec. 15 deadline to issue new federal rules for better trained mine rescue teams at the nation’s coal mines.
- Between 2000 and 2008, the MSHA has failed to issue more than 4,000 fines for violations of mine safety laws—including a mine where a Kentucky coal miner died in 2005.
- Bush even threatened to veto new mine safety legislation passed by the House to build on the 2006 MINER Act that passed in the aftermath of the Sago, Aracoma and Darby coal mine disasters.
In a House Education and Labor Committee hearing last October on the Crandall Canyon disaster, Sheila Phillips, mother of miner Brandon Phillip who perished in the collapse, told House members:
It’s just hard to have hope, and have your heart broke every day, and have your grandson grow up without a dad….I just miss him…I would like to know where my son is in that hole, so I can leave a marker on that mountain.
Each day in 2006, 16 U.S. workers were fatally injured on the job—5,840 that year, the latest for which data are available. That’s an increase from 5,734 in 2005.
That the number of on-the-job deaths is rising should be an embarrassment and a source of shame for the leadership of any western industrialized nation. That Sheila Phillips cannot place flowers on her son’s grave should keep any U.S. administration awake at night.
But not this one.
(This is a cross-post from the Firedoglake blog.)