Workplace safety has always been atop the labor movement’s agenda. It is now becoming a priority for candidates seeking federal office, including the presidency. The high-profile prosecution of Don Blankenship is responsible for the renewed concerns, although it remains unlikely for now that labor laws will change.
At issue here is whether the “willful” violation of a mine safety laws in which workers’ lives would be put in jeopardize should be a felony or a misdemeanor. It’s a matter that extends beyond the coal mines and into the highest suites of every company in the United States that produces a product. In the Blankenship case, prosecutors literally started their investigation from deep within the mines and landed in the highest offices of the former Massey Energy, which owned the ill-fated coal mine that killed 29 in April 2010.
“This sentence is the maximum allowable under the law, but regrettably, the criminal provisions of the Mine Act are far too weak to truly hold accountable those who put miners’ lives at risk,” says Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, in a statement. “This administration continues to support efforts in Congress to strengthen those penalties, and we stand ready to work with members who believe that no worker should lose their life for a paycheck.”
In December 2015, Blankenship was convicted of sidestepping the nation’s workplace safety laws, which is a misdemeanor. He was cleared of three felonies, which would have landed him 30 years in prison, two of which dealt with securities violations. This month, a federal judge in Charleston, WV sentenced him to a year in prison and a $250,000 fine, which is the maximum allowed by law. Unless a court steps in, he will report to prison in mid May.
While defense attorneys have appealed the verdict and say that they will be successful, critics say that workplace safety laws are too weak. To this end, US Senators Joe Manchin, D-WV, and Bob Case, D-PA., have introduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, which would increase the penalties for repeat offenders, reform a system that allows allows in safety fines to go unpaid and end the backlog of safety claims that delays justice for miners, their release says.
Their bill would increase the jail time to 5 years for “recklessly” disregarding mine safety laws — things that would increase the odds of death, injury or sickness. It would also increase the penalty to $1 million.
“We have an obligation to ensure the safety of those who work in our nation’s mines. There are too many safety violations and too often those violations go without accountability,” Senator Casey said. “This is commonsense legislation that will prioritize the safety of coal miners and ensure that there are series consequences for those that disregard basic safety.”
To be sure, previous efforts to reform the nation’s workplace safety laws have foundered. The concern among corporate chiefs is that they would be unfairly targeted for things that they could not have foreseen or for issues that they had tried to fix but which they had not been successful.
As for Blankenship, his defense team — led by William Taylor, who defended the now-former IMF chief who had been accused of assaulting a hotel maid in New York City — believes passionately in their client’s innocence. Among the issues the team raises in its appeals are: Blankenship was deeply concerned about safety and that the judge refused to allow evidence in that pointed to this — evidence that the judge said was irrelevant as to whether the defendant was devoted to safety.
The defense has also been highly critical of the fact that the government never called any mine safety experts to discuss the citations that they had written, meaning that the defense could not cross-examine them. The defense had said that the overwhelming majority of those violations were fixed within a day and that they had been minor.
“I don’t think there’s a mine manager or chairman of the board or CEO for a mine company in the country that would want to spend a year in a federal prison, even if it’s minimum security, or what some refer to as a country club,” said Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University, in an interview with the West Virginia State Journal. “So yes, even though it’s a year, it will serve as a deterrent.
“Whether it’s enough to reach every corporate executive or mine manager that might be disposed to put their employees’ lives or health at risk — probably not,” McGinley added. “But the great majority don’t want to be exposed to that type of punishment.”
Ken Silverstein is editor-in-chief of Business Sector Media, publisher of Environmental Leader and Energy Manager Today.
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