It’s Not Part of the Job


2006 started out badly for the families of the miners killed or injured in the Sago Mine explosion in West Virginia. I’m sure your thoughts and prayers were with them as were mine. As the old Wobbly saying goes, “An injury to one is an injury to all”.


As I watched the tragedy unfold, it struck me how many times I heard about mining being a dangerous profession and all of the hazards associated with a mine being “part of the job”. The ever-present possibility of a cave-in, explosion or fire, excessive levels of coal dust, methane and sources of ignition apparently were commonplace at that site. The miners work every day with heavy mining and material handling equipment. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) were frequent visitors to Sago, far more than required, due to the high number of safety and health citations issued.


What could this disaster have in common with the work we do? I’ve only explored a few caves in my lifetime, never going too far underground, therefore I have no point of reference when trying to understand the hazards these brave souls face daily. I often hear people outside work say a factory must be a dangerous place to work—is it as dangerous as a mine?


Although we don’t have the realistic possibility of a building caving in (unless there is a tornado), we do have people who are regularly at risk of being crushed by the equipment they work with if it is not properly locked out. We work with and around many hazardous materials that could explode, ignite or just plain make us sick. And yes, there are plenty of instances where we could be injured by material handling equipment whizzing by—these are some of the same hazards as in mines.


OSHA and MSHA were created thirty-five years ago to assure that employers provided safe places of employment for workers. MSHA tried unsuccessfully to bring the Sago mine into compliance, but may not have acted forcefully enough to be effective. Considering appointments made to the Department of Labor by the Bush administration, this is really no big surprise. 


Usually, the United Mine Workers of America would have been right in the middle of a tragedy such as this, but Sago was a non-union mine, therefore the UMWA had no role at the site. So, here we have hundreds of citations by MSHA, failure to shut the mine down for serious safety violations and no union in place to look out for the well-being of the workers—what a recipe for disaster!


We have the right to work in a workplace free of recognized hazards that may cause death or serious injury—it’s the law! This also includes health issues. We have the right to breathe air that does not make us sick!


If anyone reading this is aware of conditions that exist that could hurt you or make you sick, let me assure you it is not part of your job to be hurt or sick! We have a Safety Complaint Procedure (at CAT) or the grievance procedure (in the other units) to remedy these recognized hazards. Our UAW International Health and Safety Department is second to none with the resources they can bring to bear when called to assist the local unions. But they can’t lift a finger to help unless we follow the procedure by raising our hand and saying there is a problem.


I completely understand that some rouge supervisors work hard to intimidate workers when it comes to health and safety. I understand supplemental or newly hired workers are afraid of losing their jobs, but there are stewards, committeemen and safety representatives there to help you. Please, if you are hurt or sick at work, go to first-aid. Write down your concerns, document your conversations with your supervisor when you complain of workplace hazards and call for your union representative because illness and/or injury are not part of anyone’s job.


In Solidarity,

Steve Mitchell