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MSHA Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson Speech to United Mine Workers of America 56th Consecutive Constitutional Convention

Mine Safety and Health
Office of Assistant Secretary
Las Vegas, Nevada
June 08, 2022
MSHA Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson Speech to United Mine Workers of America 56th Consecutive Constitutional Convention
United Mine Workers of America 56th Consecutive Constitutional Convention

As prepared for delivery

Good morning. My name is Chris Williamson, and I am the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. Thank you President Roberts, Secretary-Treasurer Sanson, and all of you for inviting me to be here with you this week.  I want to personally and publicly thank President Roberts for his kind words and the entire UMWA membership for supporting my nomination to lead MSHA. 

My family has a long history with the UMWA, so having the backing of this Union to lead the federal agency tasked with protecting the safety and health of our nation’s miners means a great deal to me. I also stand here today proud to serve in an Administration that champions workers’ rights and knows that organized labor built the middle class in this country.

I was born and raised in the southern coalfields of Mingo County, West Virginia in the backyard of Matewan and Blair Mountain. Many members of my family have been coal miners and members of this Union, including my great-grandfather who was a proud UMWA miner for over thirty years. Even though he developed black lung like so many miners of his generation, my Papaw Andrew lived a long life and was able to retire with some dignity because of his UMWA health card and pension. My Mamaw Marjorie, who lived into her mid-90s, also had the best healthcare around because of that UMWA health card. Their son, who they fed, clothed, and supported with UMWA wages, raised me.

Like many kids in Appalachia, I was blessed to have grandparents who stepped in when I needed them the most. My Papaw Jay, who still lives in Mingo County in the same modest home he built himself over 50 years ago, taught me everything that I know about hard work and public service. From my earliest memories, he always encouraged me to do well in school and get a great education. So, I listened.

I have been fortunate to have had some wonderful educational and professional opportunities. While attending the West Virginia University College of Law, I developed a passion for workers’ rights and decided that I wanted to pursue a career in public service as a labor lawyer. 

One month before my law school graduation, Upper Big Branch happened. Like many of you in this room, that event changed my life. I needed to do something about what had just happened in my home state, so I accepted a position with a judge at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission to work on the backlog of cases that existed at that time. 

Although I grew up in a mining community, and miners were the workers that I knew the best, this job was my introduction to the power of the Mine Act and its protections for the safety and health of miners. 

I then went to work for Senator Manchin as his primary staffer for labor and mine safety and health issues. One of my fondest memories working in Congress was the day that I stood with many of you at the Charleston Civic Center as he championed your fight to keep the healthcare and pension benefits that you were promised. 

During my time working on Capitol Hill, I also served as labor counsel to Senator Tom Harkin—the son of an Iowa coal miner and the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. During my time on the Committee, I led a group of staffers who spent over a year conducting rigorous oversight and drafting legislation in response to investigative reporting that exposed issues and injustices in the federal black lung benefits program. I will always be proud of the work that we did to make that program fairer and more just for coal miners and their families.

In 2014, I was given the opportunity by one of your brothers—Assistant Secretary Joe Main—to come to MSHA and serve during the Obama/Biden Administration. I learned a great deal from working closely with Assistant Secretary Main, lessons that I now apply every day in my new job.

Prior to my recent return to MSHA, I served as Senior Counsel to NLRB Board Member and now Chairman Lauren McFerran. In that role, I helped enforce the National Labor Relations Act by protecting workers’ rights to organize, form a union, and collectively bargain for good wages and benefits and safe workplaces.

I recount these experiences to drive home the point that I have a profound respect for miners and their communities. I understand the importance of the work MSHA and its dedicated employees do every day to protect miners in coal mines, gravel pits, salt mines, cement plants, and each and every mine across the country.

Sadly, I also know what can happen when mines are not operated safely, and miners are unnecessarily exposed to occupational hazards that can cause irreversible health problems, pain and suffering, and death. That is why it is so important to me that we protect miners and ensure that all miners are able to come home safely to their communities each day and that we continue our commitment to their safety and health after they leave the mines. It is vital work, and work that I am honored to do at MSHA serving as Assistant Secretary.

When Congress passed the Mine Act and created MSHA it communicated with the full force and effect of law the Agency's primary mission—that "the priority and concern of all in the coal or other mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource—the miner." That clear instruction and principle are what guide our Agency and its employees, and it is what guides me every day.

Since the Mine Act became law in 1977, the mining industry has changed and evolved.  So too has MSHA. With the work of our Agency’s programs and its mandatory safety and health standards, the development of new technologies by public and private entities, and the joint efforts of federal and state governments, labor, and industry, mines are now safer and healthier by practically every historical metric. But we still have a lot of work to do.

I know that we cannot only solve problems of the past, but we need to think ahead. We must develop solutions to challenges we have yet to identify – in addition to staying ahead of the current and potential risks.

In keeping with our mission, we are working every day to keep miners safe and healthy, and we are focusing on long-term exposure illnesses that have plagued miners and mining communities for far too long. We are ensuring MSHA is using all the tools in our toolbox to protect miners and move mine health and safety forward, not backward.

Those tools include strategic enforcement, outreach, and compliance assistance.

That means hiring good inspectors and specialists and beefing up an agency that went through significant attrition in the previous Administration. As part of that effort, we have launched an apprenticeship inspector program focused on hiring displaced miners in underserved or underrepresented populations. The posting is linked on our website, shared on social media and it is live on USAJOBS – please share widely and go to USAJOBS.gov to apply.

Using all of our tools means recruitment and succession planning to hire and keep the best and brightest in a competitive environment and developing that talent.

It means using all provisions of the Mine Act—as Congress intended—to maximize protections for miners and never forgetting all the miners who came before us who fought for and in some cases died for those protections.

It means focusing on the most chronic violators of the Act and improving compliance, including exercising the Mine Act’s Pattern of Violations provision if necessary, and also targeting scofflaw operators who rack up penalties and continue unsafe mining operations.

And it means deploying those tools and resources effectively to reduce accidents, health hazards, and fatalities in our Nation’s mines.

Over the next few years, this Administration and I have very clear priorities at MSHA.

We will work to ensure that – should a disaster occur – MSHA is prepared to move swiftly to provide mine emergency response. Toward that end, we are updating and expanding our mine rescue capabilities where needed.

We will put resources into ensuring that miners know their rights in the workplace and feel free to exercise them without fear. Former Assistant Secretary Main put it best, we have to make this clear, so miners understand that there is an Agency out there that has their back.

And we will make sure this Agency protects miners’ health as well as their safety.

As you all know all too well, this is a tough challenge. Last year the mining community experienced the most fatalities since 2014. Thirty-seven miners lost their lives in 2021, and to date, the numbers are trending only marginally better this year. Having spent most of my life in West Virginia, I deeply understand how a mining fatality can impact a family and the entire community.

Many of last year’s fatalities were from accidents involving powered haulage, which has historically been a frequent cause of mining deaths. To combat these accidents, MSHA launched a Stand Down For Safety Day last July in which MSHA District Managers, Assistant District Managers, and inspectors visited mines across the country to speak with mine management and miners and to distribute information on powered haulage and rollover accidents and best practices to prevent them. We reached thousands of miners and mine operators through email, virtual meetings, website resources, social media and a direct message from Secretary Walsh. On the day of the event, we reached several thousand miners in person. Discussions with miners and operators on powered haulage, using these resources, will continue when inspectors travel to the mines.

We’ve also launched our Take Time, Save Lives campaign, reaching out directly to miners and operators through flyers posted at mines, billboards, online information, and radio public service announcements. Looking at the root causes of last year’s fatalities and serious accidents, many of them could have been prevented with proper training and just a few minutes of attention to tasks.

It is up to mine operators to ensure miners are fully trained and have the time to follow best safety practices that can prevent deadly accidents. The Take Time, Save Lives campaign includes resources to help train miners of all experience levels, particularly on powered haulage.

We provide resources for education, training, and compliance assistance, but at the end of the day, MSHA is an enforcement agency, and we will not hesitate to enforce the Mine Act and our standards to protect every miner’s safety and health.

This year we launched a new enhanced enforcement program involving customer and contract truck drivers, and managers and supervisors performing mining tasks. MSHA’s analysis of recent accident data indicates that accidents involving these individuals represented a significant number of recent fatalities. The initiative focuses on specific standards, and any citations issued for these violations may be considered for a special assessed proposed civil penalty. MSHA’s district offices will identify mines that can benefit from compliance assistance from our Educational Field and Small Mine Services staff in implementing this program.

I am acutely aware that mining deaths don’t occur only from accidents. Repeated exposures to respirable hazards such as coal dust, silica, and diesel exhaust at unsafe levels can take a miner’s livelihood, dignity, and eventually life. At MSHA, we must always actively pursue ways to reduce miners’ exposure to toxic environments, including where high levels of respirable crystalline silica are present. 

We know that the coal seams being mined in many places—including my home in Appalachia—are getting thinner and thinner, and layered in rock containing quartz. I don’t have to explain to you the toxic mix that results from cutting into those layers of rock and coal, and the devastating effect it can have on a miner’s lungs if proper engineering controls and measures to reduce exposure levels are not in place. Many metal and nonmetal miners also work in potentially dangerous mining environments where taking proper precautions to limit silica exposures are equally as important.

Moreover, we know from NPR and PBS’s investigative reporting, NIOSH’s Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program, and the works of other health experts that we are in the midst of a surge in pneumoconiosis, including increasing development of more severe forms of disease and occurrences in younger and less experienced miners. A growing number of experts and research point to respirable crystalline silica as the likely cause.

We are working on ways to effectively communicate with miners about the importance of maintaining awareness about their health. The first step toward addressing any type of lung impairment or related occupational illness is knowing about the severity of the condition. Whether coal miners participate in NIOSH’s confidential surveillance program or seek evaluation through medical experts of their own choosing, it is so important to get regularly evaluated, especially at the onset of any symptoms.

There are a growing number of coal miners who are developing varying levels of pneumoconiosis at earlier ages. A lot of them have small children just like I do, and I know that they need to continue to work to provide for their families. Under existing law, coal miners have Part 90 rights that would allow them to continue working in less dusty, more protective environments. However, even in light of the surge in black lung, it is clear from our data that not many miners are choosing to exercise their Part 90 rights. I have asked my team to look into this issue and to explore ways that we can reduce barriers that may be preventing coal miners from choosing to exercise Part 90 rights.

We are looking for ways to empower miners so they can make the best decisions to protect their employment and health. Aside from the threshold question of how many coal miners even know Part 90 rights exist, I know one of the biggest barriers is fear of retaliation or discrimination. I know from my work as a labor lawyer that it is never easy for any worker to challenge the boss. I want to reiterate, however, that if a miner who has already developed black lung qualifies for Part 90 and chooses to exercise those rights our Agency will use everything in our power under the law to protect that miner. That I can promise today.

I have witnessed too many miners carrying oxygen tanks and struggling to breathe in order to just take a few steps or do the simplest of tasks. One of the reasons that I answered the President’s call to serve at MSHA again was because I understood the gravity of this problem and knew I could help. I want to assure all of you that Secretary Walsh and I fully understand that reducing miners’ exposures to silica cannot wait.  I personally refuse to stand by and watch miners my age—the friends that I grew up with—develop debilitating and deadly lung diseases that are entirely preventable.

The first step that MSHA is taking to counter this occupational plague is working on a regulation to address exposure to respirable crystalline silica at every mine in this country. My team and I are committed to promulgating a rule that will enhance protections for all miners and provide the level of protection required under the Mine Act. Moving this regulation through the rulemaking process and ultimately to a final rule is my top priority.

As you all know, complex rulemaking such as silica can take time. However, that does not mean that we cannot and should not take action now to protect miners. That is why I am announcing for the first time today a new Silica Enforcement Initiative.

The initiative will encompass inspections, sampling, compliance assistance, and direct conversations with miners.

We will conduct 103(i) 15-day spot inspections at mines with a history of repeated silica overexposures to closely monitor and evaluate health and safety conditions.

For metal and nonmetal mines where MSHA has previously issued a citation for silica exposure over the existing permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 100 micrograms per cubic meter and the operator has not timely abated, we will issue a 104(b) withdrawal order until the silica overexposure hazard has been abated. And for coal mines where we find silica exposures over the existing PEL, we will evaluate existing dust control and ventilation plans and work with operators to strongly encourage them to incorporate additional engineering controls and make plan changes to address the known silica hazard.

MSHA will expand silica sampling at metal and nonmetal mines to ensure inspectors sample a more representative number of mines as well as sample the highest risk occupations.

Where there is shaft and slope sinking and removal of overburden, we will sample occupations that have a known high risk of silica exposure.

For underground coal mines, MSHA will make every effort to sample during periods of the mining process that present the highest risk of silica exposure for miners: For extended cuts (greater than 20 feet), MSHA will take additional dust samples for miners who are overexposed. For developing crosscuts, MSHA may take additional samples when miners may be at greater risk of high exposures.

We will also distribute materials and provide compliance assistance through Educational Field and Small Mine Services staff. MSHA enforcement and compliance assistance personnel will focus on talking to miners about their rights to report hazardous health conditions, including any attempt to tamper with the sampling process. Miners will also be informed that they have rights under 105(c) of the Act and encouraged to file a complaint with MSHA if anyone has interfered with their ability to exercise those rights or if they have been discriminated or retaliated against for doing so.

I appreciate the opportunity to be with you this week and to speak to my great-grandfather’s Union about protecting miners’ safety and health. This Administration prioritizes workers’ rights, including the right to a safe and healthy workplace.  We cannot and will not stop working for you. Our mission is clear and my priorities are unflinching.

Again, thank you for your support and thank you for your partnership as we work together to ensure that the greatest mining resource – miners – are safe, healthy and prosperous for their families, our communities and our nation.