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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

America's Miners Deserve Better

Precious air: America's miners deserve better oxygen packs

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The United Mine Workers of America has gone to court to demand that someone ensure laborers get enough oxygen in emergencies _ a completely reasonable plea after 33 miners died this year, nearly half of them from carbon monoxide poisoning.

UMWA wants random inspections by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration of the emergency oxygen packs miners carry. And UMWA wants additional training in using them, not in the safety of tidy classrooms but in conditions simulating smoky, dark, terrifying mine accidents.

MSHA failed to require either when it issued temporary emergency rules earlier this year. And Congress didn't require either in a bill it passed last week strengthening mine safety regulations.

The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 _ which President Bush has said he will sign _ does deal with important safety issues like communications from surface to tunnels and addresses some vital air issues. It requires mining companies to give workers emergency air packs containing twice as much oxygen _ two hours' worth _ and to store additional air supplies along escape routes.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., attempted to amend the MINER Act to include random inspections of the breathing devices and training in emergency-like conditions.

He felt compelled to try to add these provisions based on the stories told by mine disaster survivors. The sole survivor of the January catastrophe at West Virginia's Sago mine, where 11 perished from carbon monoxide poisoning, said four of the emergency air devices failed, forcing miners to share the remaining oxygen packs. Then, in May, a survivor of the explosion at Kentucky's Darby Mine No. 1, where three died of carbon monoxide poisoning, told relatives his air pack worked for only a few minutes.

While MSHA says all of the emergency devices worked just fine, all of those at Sago contained oxygen, raising the question of why miners dying from lack of good air would discard them before they were empty.

Despite all that, the House rejected Miller's amendments to ensure the devices are in good operating condition before explosions occur and miners know how to use them in a panic.

Mine safety has hardly been a priority for Congress. It managed to adopt the first legislation in 30 years imposing significant improvements only after a series of highly publicized mine tragedies over the past six months. MSHA betrays the same lax attitude about protecting miners when it belittles the UMWA lawsuit as a "stunt."

Demanding an espresso bar for coffee breaks in tunnels would be a stunt. Petitioning for a secure supply of oxygen in emergencies is a right. The UMWA is fulfilling its duty to protect its members by asking. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia should grant the request before another miner suffocates.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,


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