Earlier this year, a group of worker advocates sent a petition to MSHA Chief Richard Stickler asking for rulemaking to improve the training miners receive about their statutory rights. The petition called for significant changes in the way in which all workers employed at U.S. mining operations learn about their rights, including the right to refuse unsafe work and to express concerns about hazards. (Previous post here) The petitioners asked MSHA to consider changing how miners’ rights training is conducted, specifically having someone other than the miner operator or his representative cover this part of the training.
Not surprisingly, MSHA’s Stickler sponded to the petition saying “new regulations are not necessary.” Some of the assertions he makes to support his position are dismal, at best.
The petition recommended that miners’ rights training be provided by MSHA, State officials or other entities independent of the mine operator. Mr. Stickler asserts that Section 115(a) of the Mine Act
“places the responsibility of providing a training program on operators. A regulation prohibiting operators from using operator personnel to provide any portion of the training would be contrary to the statutory language.”
Let’s see what Section 115(a) of the Mine Act really says:
“Each operator of a coal or other mine shall have a health and safety training program which shall be approved by the Secretary. The Secretary shall promulgate regulations with respect to such health and safety training…”
That means the mine operator/employer has to have a training program, but it doesn’t mandate that the operator actually conduct the training. The agency’s regulations are what dictates the what, how and by whom of the training program. MSHA has the authority to amend its regulations to require statutory training be provided exclusively by an MSHA official, or by other specially-certified individuals. Trying to brush off this idea off with a mere “contrary to statutory language” retort is pathetic enough, but then Mr. Stickler adds:
“MSHA believes that there are benefits to having operators provide statutory rights training. A miner may be more inclined to exercise a statutory right if the operator informed that miner of his statutory right. Similarly, when an operator provides the training, the operator may be less inclined to deny or interfere with a miner’s exercise of statutory rights.”
This might sound good in a business textbook, but I’d like to see some data to support it. One place to start would be examining the files of miners who have been daring enough to file a discrimination complaint under Section 105(c)(1) of the Mine Act. How many years ago did they receive training on miners’ rights? Do you still work with the person who provided this training? What do you remember from that training?
In fact, this is the kind of data which would illuminate another key component of the petition: miners deserve more frequent training about their statutory rights–not just once when they are new miners, but as part of their annual refresher training. As the petitioners note:
“This obviously presents a problem because even if new miners received the most dynamic and memorable statutory rights training, such knowledge fades as the years pass. A miner may not need to exercise his or her statutory rights until several years into a mining career. At that juncture, if such miners have had relevant training only at the outset of their careers, they often do not know their statutory rights well at all and cannot protect themselves.”
MSHA Chief Stickler believes, on the other hand, that once is enough–if miners get training about their rights when they are new miners, that’s good enough. No matter that they may have had this training when they were 18 or 19 years old, and being bombarded with all different sorts of information about doing their job.
Stickler, actually goes further:
“Section 115(a)(3) expressly states that new miner training must include statutory rights training, but it does not expressly state that annual refresher training must include statutory rights training. Therefore, MSHA believes that Congress did not intend to require annual refresher training on statutory rights.“
Holy smokes! that’s a stretch. The Mine Act actually sets the minimum requirements for miners’ training, and the only thing it delineates with respect to annual refresher training is:
“all miners shall receive no less than eight hours of refresher training no less frequently than once each 12 months…”
Again, MSHA has discretion to mandate the what, how and by whom of the training program, and these requirements can be changed through rulemaking—the exact request of the petion.
If Mr. Stickler doesn’t see the benefit of raising miners’ awareness of the statutory rights during annual refresher training, he should just say so. Trying to hide behind a claim that Congress didn’t intend miners’ to get this training but once during their career is just lame. In fact, Mr. Stickler’s response to the petition gets a failing grade.
Note: For mine workers who want information about their statutory rights, see: A Guide to Miners’ Rights and Responsibilities under the Mine Act of 1977.
Celeste Monforton, MPH worked at MSHA from 1995-2001. She volunteers as special projects coordinator for United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, one of the four groups which sent this rulemaking petition to MSHA.