WASHINGTON – A House panel on Wednesday approved sweeping mine and workplace safety reforms prompted by the deadly explosion in April that killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia.
The 30-17 vote came over the objections of the mine industry despite last-minute changes to exempt all mines except underground coal mines and about 10 other underground mines that produce flammable gases.
"Families should not live in fear that their loved one will not come home from their shift," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor committee.
The bill would increase penalties for serious mine safety violations, make it easier for the government to shut down problem mines and offer more protection for whistle-blowers. Mines shut down for a pattern of violations would have to keep paying workers during the closure.
A vote in the full House is expected before year's end.
Mine owners and Republicans called the legislation premature because state and federal investigations have not yet revealed the cause of the massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. They said the bill focuses too much on stiffer penalties without correcting flaws in how the Mine Safety and Health Administration applies the rules.
Democrats, backed by the Obama administration, say the measure would rein in bad actors in the mining industry who view safety violations as just another cost of doing business. The Upper Big Branch, owned by Massey Energy Co., was cited for dozens of ventilation problems in the months leading up to the explosion, but had tied up many of those penalties in litigation.
GOP lawmakers also complained that the measure goes too far by overhauling other job safety laws affecting nearly every private business in the country.
"Changes wholly unrelated to miner safety will drive up costs and litigation for job creators at a time when our country can least afford it," said Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the committee's top Republican.
Democrats say the changes to the Occupational Safety and Health Act respond to a spate of deadly explosions at refineries, power plants and food processing plants that show a need to hold employers accountable if they knowingly put workers in danger.
The bill would sharply increase civil and criminal penalties for all private employers, strengthen whistle-blower laws and require businesses to fix major violations immediately, even if the employer disagrees and decides to mount a legal challenge.
The Senate has yet to take up its own mine safety measure, as lawmakers there are working to gain some bipartisan support. The broader penalties in the House bill affecting other private employers have drawn heavy criticism from business groups and may not survive in the Senate version.
Adding workplace safety laws to a bill intended to address mine safety "is not the right approach, especially at a time when our nation needs jobs," said Keith Smith, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers.
Lawmakers in both chambers have said they want a mine safety bill passed by the end of the year.