Mining Fatalities, Families and Sen. Patty Murray

The Senate HELP Committee is holding a hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 2 on “Current Mine Safety Disasters: Issues and Challenges.”  The witness list includes the same familiar faces from MSHA, NIOSH, the UMWA and National Mining Association, but the Committee has also invited two “newcomers” to these mine safety hearings.  One is former MSHA engineer Robert Ferriter (now with the Colorado School of Mines), who received some publicity in the wake of the Crandall Canyon disaster when he was critical of MSHA’s approval of the Murray Energy’s mining plan.  The other is Joseph Osterman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who is expected to provide information on his agency’s Family Assistance Program for Aviation Disasters.  At a Sept. 5th hearing on the Crandall Canyon disaster held by Senator Harkin’s subcommittee on appropriations, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) mentioned the NTSB as a possible model for MSHA to follow to improve its procedures for communicating and providing support to family members of mining disasters.  

Following the Sept. 1994 crash of USAirways Flight #427 near Aliquippa, PA, in which 127 passsengers and 5 crew members perished, relatives and friends of the victims formed the Flight 427 Air Disaster Support League (ADSL).  Among the group’s objectives was to find out the cause of the airline disaster, so that other families would not suffer similiar tragedy, and “to provide support and information to victims of air disasters.”  Through the persistence and diligence of these family members, they were instrumental in the passage of two federal laws: the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 and the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997.  These laws required airlines to have written plans and programs to provide assistance to families in the event of an aviation disaster within the United States, and established a taskforce, which included family-member victims, to develop recommendations to the government and airlines on ’best practices’ for assisting families in the event of a disaster.  As the ADSL notes:

One of the League’s goals early on was to establish the position of Family Advocate within the NTSB. The role of the Advocate would be to represent the unique needs of the grieving family members and airline crash survivors in the aftermath of an airline disaster. Our goal was to establish a third party, not connected with the airline, to sensitively notify family members in a timely fashion of the crash and to assist in the handling of sensitive family issues.

By all indications, the procedures for keeping family members apprized in the hours, days and months following the initial airline disaster and the investigation are unrecognizable to those in place prior to 1997.  And, when I look at the wishes of these family victims of airline disasters, such as, “an advocate to represent the unique needs of grieving families” and “third-party not connected with the airline” to notify and assist families with matters, I’ve heard the same reasonable request from family-member victims of workplace fatalities.  In fact, several of us affiliated with the group United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMWF) have been working on our own “wish list” for family members who’ve lost a loved one in a fatal workplace injury.  Our ideas include:

  • A federal liaison office to provide family members with information about the accident investigation procedures (whether conducted by federal OSHA, MSHA or a State agency)
  • A right to be kept routinely informed of the status of the accident investigation
  • A right to recommend names of individuals to be interviewed by investigators
  • A right to review all transcripts, written statements and other materials and evidence assembled by investigators (and at least as early as this information is shared with the employer or his representative)

For the sake of all family-member victims of workplace fatalities (and we know in 2006 there were more than 5,700 fatal workplace injuries alone) we hope whatever the Senate HELP Committee learns from the NTSB at the Oct. 2 hearing, translates into something that will benefit miners’ families and ultimately all workers’ families.  Stay tuned to see if Senator Patty Murray has something up her sleeve that will let family-victims know that someone cares about them.