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Walberg Statement: Hearing on “Protecting America’s Workers: Reviewing Mine Safety Policies with Stakeholders”

Each day men and women across the country work hard to earn a living and provide for their families. They deserve the security and peace of mind that come from knowing their workplaces are safe and effective policies are in place to protect them. That’s true whether an individual works at a desk, behind a counter, or in a mine.

Two weeks ago, we discussed the important role the Occupational Safety and Health Administration plays in providing American workers the safe workplaces they deserve. And earlier this year, we heard from Assistant Secretary Joe Main, head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, who discussed the work his agency is doing to help keep miners safe.

On each occasion, we urged the administration to hold bad actors accountable, as well as to work with employers and other stakeholders to identify gaps in safety and to implement responsible solutions. The goal is to prevent injuries and fatalities before they occur, and this responsible approach is the best way to achieve that goal.

Today, we will hear from a number of stakeholders in the mining industry, including operators, labor, and safety experts. There has been significant change in the mining industry over the last several years, including the way health and safety policies are enforced. This hearing is an opportunity to hear what’s working and what isn’t.

As we all know, thousands of miners are employed by an industry that is vitally important to our nation’s homes and businesses. We also know that these men and women work in an environment that is extremely dangerous, where some of the most basic tasks can be life-threatening. It’s hard to imagine working in a place where the very air you breathe is hazardous to your health, but that’s just one of the many hazards miners face.

We have witnessed the deadly consequences that ensue when mine safety and health rules are not followed. Upper Big Branch is a painful reminder of what happens when bad actors put profit before safety, and a trial currently underway in West Virginia demonstrates the role our criminal justice system can play.

Upper Big Branch is also a painful reminder of what happens when mine safety and health rules are not properly enforced. As an independent report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health noted, “If [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] had engaged in timely enforcement of the Mine Act and applicable standards and regulations, it would have lessened the chances of – and possibly could have prevented – the UBB explosion.”

In response, the agency has taken steps intended to improve safety, such as requiring the use of continuous personal dust monitors and proximity detectors, launching an “impact inspection” initiative, and changing the pattern of violations process. We have repeatedly called on MSHA to do better, and while we haven’t agreed with each action it has taken, we are pleased the agency is showing more of a commitment to using the tools it has to keep miners safe.

Unfortunately, along with reports of effective enforcement, I have also heard reports of inspectors being overly aggressive in their citation policy. With one inspector, the majority of citations were found to be in error by a court. We agree that oversight of mine safety is imperative to worker safety, but we also want to ensure mines can continue to successfully operate and provide good jobs for its workers.

We look forward to hearing from our witnesses on these and other actions MSHA has taken in recent years. Understanding the state of the industry, seeing how current rules are or are not working, and discussing what we can do differently are vital to worker safety, and that is why we asked you all to join us today.

Each of you offers a different and important perspective on the policies in place to protect America’s miners. Your views and expertise will help us answer a number of important questions: Are the policies that have been put in place in recent years working? If not, why not? Is enforcement more effective or less effective? Are there additional steps MSHA can take to strengthen protections?

Your testimony will help us ensure enforcement and regulatory policies serve the best interests of miners and their families. Again, thank you for joining us. We look forward to your testimony and to continuing this important conversation on worker safety.