(FinalCall.com) – Mining families gathered at a West Virginia church, wringing their hands in anguish as they awaited news of the fate of their loved ones–two miners who were missing in a Melville, W. Va. mine, who were found dead Jan. 21. Three weeks prior, an explosion in another West Virginia mine led to the deaths of 12 miners.
According to a Jan. 5 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, West Virginia mining accidents killed 152 people in 1968. The article stated that in 2005, there were just three deaths in the coal mines.
Coal mine fatalities dropped dramatically over the past century from 3,242 in 1907 to a low of 22 in 2005, according to records published by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). But activists and politicians are insisting that mines are still not safe, with President George Bush’s downsize of the MSHA by 170 positions since 2001, and Congressional cuts of MSHA’s funding by $4.9 million for 2006.
The United Mine Workers (UMW) union contends that the federal government must not lessen its enforcement of mining safety regulations. “We call on the Bush administration to fully fund the Mine Safety and Health Administration to ensure that coal mines are inspected more thoroughly and that the mine act is enforced more stringently,” Cecil Roberts, president of the UMW, said in a statement.
Workers at the Sago mine, where the 12 coal miners perished, did not have a union to back them up when safety issues were raised. MSHA records show that they issued 208 citations of violations against the mine in 2005, up from 68 in 2004.
“We have no protection for our workers. We need to get the United Mine workers back into the coal mines,” said John Bennett, on NBC‘s “Today Show” on Jan. 8. He is the father of one of the Sago miners who died. His statement and more on the conditions in coal mines may be viewed on the Working Families e-Activist Network. The weblog Mine Safety Watch notes that a coal miner was “more than six times as likely to get killed on the job as any other worker in 2004.
“Workers cannot wait for government agencies to do the right thing,” argues Brenda Stokely, former president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council-1707 in New York. She also serves as the co-organizer of the Million Worker March for the Northeast region.
“Workers have to take a militant stand when it comes to health and safety issues in the workplace,” Ms. Stokely stressed. “We must organize and mobilize workers in this country, and they must get involved with unions.”
She also noted that, with the exception of the unfortunate deaths in the coal mines, most of the workers who fall victim to workplace fatalities are people of color.
Latino and foreign-born worker fatalities rose 48 percent from 1992 to 2003, while overall workplace fatalities dropped by 11 percent, according to the AFL-CIO 14th annual “Death on the Job” report.
“Hispanic men have the greatest overall relative risk of fatal occupational injury of any gender or race/ethnic group. In 2000, Hispanic construction workers made up less that 16 percent of the construction workforce, but they suffered 23.5 percent of the fatalities,” according to the AFL-CIO report.
The report also stated that in 2003, the construction sector had the largest number of fatal work injuries (1,126), followed by transportation and warehousing (805), and agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (707). According to report, there were 5,559 workplace deaths in 2003, a slight increase from 2002, when 5,534 workplace deaths occurred.
“In 2003, 791 Latino workers were fatally injured at work,” revealed Ms. Stokely. “Construction uses a lot of Latinos because they are not protected by the unions,” she pointed out.
The Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (DOL) reported on Dec. 13, 2005, that the total number of injuries and illnesses in private industry totaled 1.3 million in 2004. According to the DOL, illnesses and injuries declined by 4.3 percent in 2004. More than four out of 10 injuries or illnesses were sprains or strains. Twenty percent of those injuries occurred in occupations such as laborers, material handlers, movers, nursing aides, orderlies and attendants, according to the DOL report.
Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), agrees with Ms. Stokely’s call for mobilization. “Unfortunately, safety and health issues are not given any attention until there is a tragedy,” Mr. Shufro said.
NYCOSH trains workers concerning workplace standards and how to stand up for their rights. “We also train workers on how to eliminate safety problems,” he said. “The bottom line is that workers need unions to fight for them.”