Occupational Health News Roundup

Back in January, the Huffington Post’s Dave Jamieson reported on the case of Reuben Shemwell, a Kentucky mineworker who’d been fired from his welding job with an affiliate of Armstrong Coal. Shemwell filed a discrimination complaint saying he’d been fired because he had complained about safety conditions. The Mine Safety and Health Administration decided not to pursue Shemwell’s discrimination complaint, and then Armstrong did something shocking: The company sued Shemwell, claiming a “wrongful use of civil proceedings,” which Jamieson explained is akin to a frivolous lawsuit. Jamieson wrote:

[Shemwell's attorney Tony] Oppegard maintains that Armstrong filed the suit expressly to send a message to Shemwell and other mine employees who speak up about safety problems. The filing, he argued, was what’s become known as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP suit, which is meant to preemptively intimidate detractors through with the threat of legal costs.

MSHA lawyers seem to agree. The agency filed a complaint against Armstrong … alleging that Armstrong’s filing of the lawsuit against Shemwell was an act of “retaliation and/or discrimination,” and that it was “an attempt to discourage miners from filing discrimination complaints.”

“Miners, who wish to avoid similar treatment, will be hesitant from asserting their rights,” MSHA’s attorney said in the complaint.

Spelled out in the federal Mine Safety and Health Act, a miner’s ability to raise concerns without fear of retaliation is the backbone of modern mine safety law.

Last week, workers and safety advocates breathed a sigh of relief when Administrative Law Judge Jerold Feldman decided Armstrong’s suit violated whistleblower protections and ordered the company to withdraw it. You can read Dave Jameison’s article about the decision here.

In other news:

Dallas Morning News: The Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration still have not stated plans for formal enforcement activities regarding the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people in April.

Los Angeles Times: Fourteen Los Angeles bus drivers are pursuing workers’ compensation claims over severe headaches, dizziness, nausea, respiratory difficulties, and other health problems they say are related to the use of pesticides on city buses.

News-Press: In a survey of more than 1,000 newly licensed US nurses, approximately half reported experiencing verbal abuse in the previous three months.

New York Times: Two polio immunization campaign volunteers were killed by gunmen in the Swabi district of northeastern Pakistan.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration: OSHA has developed a web page and safety poster to alert workers and employers to grain-handling hazards, including suffocation in grain storage bins, which killed 26 workers in 2010. The agency is working with organizations in Kansas, Ohio, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin to promote awareness of these hazards and safeguards that can save lives.