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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. HARKIN. Mr. President, I strongly support the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety Act. This bill brings the Nation's mine health and safety laws up to date, gives mine safety officials the ability to effectively investigate and shut down habitually dangerous mines, and holds mine operators accountable for putting their workers in unnecessary danger.

It has been over 3 years since April 5, 2010, when a massive explosion ripped through Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, tragically killing 29 miners. As the son of a coal miner, I continue to feel these losses very deeply, on a very personal level. My heart goes out to the family and coworkers of every worker who is killed or injured on the job. Too many of these tragedies are preventable, and we should not rest until the day comes when no hard-working American has to sacrifice his or her life for a paycheck.

The Upper Big Branch catastrophe spurred numerous investigations, and the resulting reports have yielded insight into specific ways that the government can act to improve the health and safety of our Nation's miners. Under the leadership of Joe Main, the Mine and Safety Health Administration has already taken many such important steps. One of their bold new safety initiatives that flowed from the Upper Big Branch explosion was to overhaul the ``pattern of violations'' process, which targets the worst actors in the mining industry. The pattern of violations regulation addresses a root cause of the Upper Big Branch disaster by strengthening worker protections at mines where operators are repeatedly and flagrantly disregarding safety rules. It is a substantial step forward that will help address the problems at our most dangerous mines before disaster strikes. And MSHA has made similar progress on other recommendations stemming from the Upper Big Branch disaster. Indeed, according to a March 31, 2013, report from the Labor Department's Office of Inspector General, MSHA has already implemented or is on track to timely address all of the 100 recommendations with deadlines from the investigative teams that studied the Upper Big Branch explosion.

I applaud these efforts wholeheartedly, and I am pleased to mark our Nation's progress in mine safety reform. On-the-job deaths of miners reached a record low in 2012 of 35. But 35 deaths means 35 brothers, sons, uncles, and fathers were stolen away from their families last year--a number that is still far too high. Catastrophes like the Upper Big Branch explosion make it clear that our work here is unfinished.

To prevent yet another disaster and more unnecessary deaths, Congress must do its part. It is time for the Senate to take action and ensure that a disaster like the Upper Big Branch explosion will never happen again. We need to strengthen the oversight system for the most dangerous mines, fortify penalties for operators who willfully put miners at risk, and make sure miners are protected if they raise safety concerns. And that is why I strongly support the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety Act of 2013. This bill is an important step in making good on an obligation we have to health and safety of our courageous miners and their families.

This bill stands for some fundamental principles I believe are shared by all Americans.

We believe that every American deserves to go to work without fearing for his or her life.

We believe that responsible businesses that put safety first shouldn't have to compete with businesses that prioritize a quick buck over the safety of their employees.

We believe that employers who put workers' lives at risk should face serious consequences that will force them to change their ways.

We believe that companies shouldn't be able to hide behind high priced lawyers and convoluted corporate structures to avoid being held accountable for their actions.

We believe that the critical agencies charged with protecting workers' lives should have all the tools they need to get the job done.

We believe that whistleblowers are the first line of defense in safe workplaces and deserve strong protection from discrimination and retaliation.

The Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety Act of 2013 reflects these core principles and includes effective policies to achieve them. Its passage would be a major step forward for workplace safety.

This legislation also makes common sense reforms to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, OSHA, which has not been significantly updated since it was passed over 40 years ago. For example, whistleblower protections under the OSH Act are toothless and unfairly tilted against workers who risk their career to protect the public welfare. This bill makes essential changes to ensure that workers are protected, including lengthening OSHA's 30-day statute of limitation for whistleblowers, providing for reinstatement while the legal process unfolds for cases with an initial finding of merit and giving the worker the right to file their own claim in court if the government does not investigate the claim in a timely manner.

The bill also strengthens criminal and civil penalties that, at present, are too weak to protect workers. Under current law, an employer may be charged--at most--with a misdemeanor when a willful violation of OSHA leads to a worker's death. Under the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety Act of 2013, felony charges are available for an employer's repeated and willful violations of OSHA that result in a worker's death or serious injury. The bill also updates OSHA civil penalties--which have been unchanged since 1990--and sets a minimum penalty of $50,000 for a worker's death caused by a willful violation.

In addition to toughening sanctions for employers who needlessly expose their employees to risk, the bill makes sure that the government is responsive to workers when investigating charges. It guarantees victims the right to meet with the person investigating the claim, to be notified of and receive copies of reports or citations issued in the investigation, and to be notified of and have the right to appear at proceedings related to their case. Victims of retaliation should not suffer the double indignity of being ignored by government officials charged with protecting them.

I hope that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will support the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety Act of 2013. This important bill would take a tremendous step forward for mine safety and could ultimately save the lives of thousands of hard-working Americans.

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