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Miners' union exec calls for stronger safety laws, enforcement

By Mari-Len De Guzman

DENVER, Col. – United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) president Cecil Edward Roberts, Jr. issued a call to health and safety professionals to help push for stronger laws to protect the safety of workers. 

Roberts was a keynote speaker at this week’s American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo, being held in this city. In his address, the union leader said an average of 5,000 workers are killed every year on the job and some 50,000 die every year from occupational diseases.

“Everyone in this room should get up and say, ‘What’s going on in the workplaces of America?’” Roberts told a crowd of industrial hygienists and health and safety professionals.

Roberts started his keynote with a moment of silence to remember the 29 miners who died in the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. A sixth-generation coal miner who lost both his grandfathers to a mining accident, Roberts said mineworkers have been “slaves and mistreated for so long.”

Despite the UMWA’s founding in 1890 and a continuous record of worker fatalities in the mining industry, the U.S. did not pass any legislation protecting coal miners until 1969 – the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. This legislation was prompted by public outrage over the 1968 Farmington mine explosion in West Virginia, killing 78 workers.

Roberts said, never had anyone from the coal industry ever lobbied for legislation to protect the workers.

“It was the union and the workers that dragged our government along for the ride,” Roberts said. “The labor movement has fought for every single health and safety law that was ever passed.”

In calling for better legislation to protect workers, Roberts said “300- and some thousand” workers have died on the job since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970. He also pointed out that there are more cases and fines filed for violation of the Environmental Protection Act in one day, than in the last 40 years for OSHA violations.

“The laws don’t work. The laws are inadequate. The laws are not being enforced. We need new laws,” said Roberts, who also serves as chair of the executive council committee on safety and health at AFL-CIO.

The AIHce is co-sponsored by the American industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.

Reacting to questions from some conference attendees if the labour leader’s appearance at the AIHce general session is a signal that the AIHA is becoming an “activist”, AIHA president-elect Michael Brandt said the points raised by Roberts about protecting the workers are in line with the association’s objectives.

“It has always been about protecting worker health and safety, and we don’t apologize for that,” Brandt said at a press luncheon following Roberts’s keynote. “That’s what we do.”

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