A group of state legislators in West Virginia introduced a bill to strengthen the State’s laws to protect mine workers who raise concerns about unsafe working conditions. The lead sponsor is Delegate Bill Hamilton (R) who represents the region where the now-abandoned Sago mine is located.* He’s been a strong champion for mine safety improvements and also known for reprimanding Massey Energy’s Don Blankenship when the CEO asserted that mining disasters, like Sago and Aracoma Alma, were rare and insignificant. Mine-worker advocates, like Nathan Fetty at the WV Mine Safety Project say the current State whistleblower law is so cumbersome and ineffective that few WV miners have successfully won their safety discrimination cases.
The bill (HB 4025) would expand the definition of discrimination for any mine worker, whether working in a coal or non-coal mine (such as a stone quarry) as follows:
“No person shall discharge or in any other way discriminate against, or cause to be discharged or discriminated against or otherwise interfere with the exercise of the statutory rights of any miner, any authorized representative of miners, or applicant for employment in any coal or other mine because such miner, representative or applicant for employment:
(1) Has notified the director, his or her authorized representative, representative of miners or an operator, directly or indirectly, of any alleged violation or danger;
(2) has filed, instituted or caused to be filed or instituted any proceeding under or related to this law;
(3) has testified or is about to testify in any proceeding resulting from the administration or enforcement of the provisions of this law or any related law; or
(4) has refused to work in an area or under conditions which he or she believes to be unsafe or
(5) has exercised on behalf of himself or herself or others any right afforded under or related to this law.”
The bill also proposes to give workers 60 days (instead of only 30 days as is provided in the current law) to file a complaint, and the State’s Appeals Board will be required to begin an investigation within 15 days. Further:
“if those conducting the investigation find that such complaint was not frivolously brought, the appeals board, on an expedited basis, shall order immediate reinstatement of the miner pending final order of the complaint.”
Why are these proposed changes significant?
To me, it’s another example of the growing trend for State policymakers to tackle worker safety and health problems because they can no longer wait for action by the federal government (here, here, here). After the coal mining disasters in 2006, several States passed legislation to improve working conditions for miners, such as better communication and tracking devices and emergency air supplies. Other States instituted more frequent inspections and emergency refuge chambers.
This proposed change to protect whistleblowers goes beyond those physical, equipment-based improvements in two important ways. First, the protections extend to all mine workers, not just those working in coal mines. Second, it shifts the power-structure of worksite safety a little bit toward mine workers themselves. Unlike equipment improvements which are requirements directed at mine operators (i.e., the employer) this change is directed at workers. It is a committment from the State, in a sense, that if you refuse to work in a situation you believe is unsafe, or even just raise a concern about the safety of a practice or condition, the State will protect you from discharge or discrimination (as long as your complaint is not “frivolous”.)
Now, if this bill were to become law in West Virginia, I don’t expect the Appeals Board to be flooded with whistleblower complaints from safety-conscious workers. Despite the enhanced protections it would provide, there are still significant economic, social and cultural risks to workers who exercise their rights, especially those workers who decide to go down this road without the support of a labor union. But this bill is a GIANT step in the right direction. My hat’s off to the following members of the West Virginia Legislature who are original co-sponsors of the whistleblower protection bill:
*Delegates Bill Hamilton (R), Mike Burdiss (D), Linda Longstreth (D), Nancy Peoples Guthrie (D), Mary M. Poling (D), Sam Argento (D), Joe Talbott (D), Lidella Hrutkay (D), Charlene Marshall (D), Dale Martin (D), and Margaret Anne Staggers (D), and Senators Jon Blair Hunter (D) and Randy White (D).