Seems like once or twice a week, Congress is trying to pass some kind of hare-brained legislation to roll back the vital regulatory protections that keep our air and water clean, our food and products safe, etc. What is it with these guys and their attempt at repealing the 20th century?
photo by wallyg via flickr
Next up on their Hit Parade is “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act of 2011 (H.R. 10/S. 299)” which is scheduled for mark-up in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. This bill would require congressional approval of all major rules – within 70 days and with no changes – by both houses of Congress for any to take effect.
Let’s set aside the ridiculous notion that Congress can agree on anything within 70 days and think about this: it already takes years for a federal agency to create the rules necessary to enforce a new law, due to existing review and analysis requirements and public comment procedures. Under “REINS” all that would come to a screeching halt.
Today, Congress took an important step to improve workplace safety. The House Committee on Education and Labor passed the Robert C. Byrd (named after the late Senator from West Virginia) Miner Safety and Health Act. The bill now advances to the House floor where it will hopefully come up for a vote soon. This is an important piece of legislation. David Arkush, director of our Congress Watch division, explained its potential effects in a statement released today:
The legislation addresses two key areas in particular:
Sometimes it takes an accident to force government agencies into doing their job. But do we really need to have an accident for each agency that needs to step up its enforcement? The government needs more oversight and enforcement powers, Public Citizen’s Energy Program Director Tyson Slocum told MSNBC’s Ed Schultz yesterday and Howard Kurtz points out in today’s WaPo. He’s right. Many government agencies have failed to predict problems that should have been pretty obvious to those in the field.
- The Minerals Management Service (MMS) allowed companies to drill for oil without the necessary permits. BP, the company responsible for the thousands upon thousands of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, was just one of them. Now 11 workers are dead, oil is coating ocean wildlife and tar balls are beginning to make their way to shore. Countless workers helping to clean up this mess are risking their health, as well. Where was the oversight?
- The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA) failed to enforce workers’ safety and let thousands of violations stay in limbo while companies appealed; in the meantime, employees’ safety was still being jeopardized. What did we get? An explosion in a West Virginia mine, leaving 29 dead. Massey Energy had been issued two citations that very day. Where was the enforcement?
These are just two examples of government failing to prevent a problem. As Kurtz said:
Is there a single Washington agency that was found to have done its job well in recent years? The SEC was asleep at the switch during the Bernie Madoff swindle and other financial scams (perhaps because some staffers were busy watching porn). The banking agencies let the big Wall Street firms flood the market with junk loans, shaky derivatives and other useless paper. NHTSA was horribly slow in cracking down on Toyota acceleration problems. The Mine Safety and Health Administration couldn’t enforce its own citations before the explosion that killed more than two dozen at Massey Energy’s West Virginia mine. And we all remember FEMA in New Orleans.
Let’s hope the agencies can get with the program before the next big accident happens.
Yesterday, in honor of Workers’ Memorial Day, President Obama for the first time issued a proclamation observing the day. Workers’ Memorial Day commemorates the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is charged with protecting workers from safety and health hazards.
Several recent tragedies have drawn significant attention to workplace safety. On April 5, there was an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners. And last week, an explosion on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf Coast off Louisiana, in which 11 workers are missing and presumed dead.
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said that Massey Energy, the mine company that owned the Upper Big Branch mine, is “run like it was 1921.” The mine operator had been cited nearly 500 times in 2009 for violations of the Mine Safety and Health Act. But despite being shut down 61 times since the beginning of 2009, the dangerous conditions at the mine were allowed to continue.
Improvements are needed to both the Mine Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). In 2008, the House passed the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER) Act, but it was not taken up in the Senate. The S-MINER Act would have increased penalties and given the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) increased authority to shut down mines with a pattern of violations. But there are other problems the S-MINER Act would not address. One of these problems is the backlog of 16,000 contested citations.
The OSH Act is also woefully out of date. In a hearing in the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, witnesses discussed the need to update whistleblower protections contained in the Act. The Protecting America’s Workers Act would upgrade these protections and establish other needed reforms to OSHA.
Lena Pons is a policy analyst at Public Citizen.
The silver lining of the mine explosion in West Virginia that has left at least 25 people dead and four missing is the added attention to mine safety—and workplace safety as a whole.
The Huffington Post today featured a story about all of the workplace safety accidents that aren’t widely publicized.
“Indeed, 16 American workers die every single day, on average, at the workplace, and the federal agencies tasked with making sure that doesn’t happen need more resources and more tools to combat such tragedies,” wrote Huffington Post’s David Dayen.
Want to hear about more about them? Public Citizen now tracks developments in workplace health and safety, from accidents to policy changes. Sign up now for daily e-mailed updates.
Unfortunately, mine safety is not a new issue. Just last year, Public Citizen highlighted the huge backlog of unheard mine safety cases (13,000 a year ago, 18,000 now), and called on Congress to allocate more money to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, the government agency tasked with ruling on mine safety violations, to make more judicial hires. Many of these unheard cases are appeals–a tactic companies use to avoid paying fines for safety violations.
Perhaps if the agency had received the proper funding, Massey Energy, the company that owns the West Virginia mine, would not have gotten away with its dozens of violations. In fact, the company was slapped with two citations the very day of Monday’s explosion.