Charles Scott Howard "has lost his job twice—both times because of his safety advocacy, his lawyers have maintained—and he has twice been reinstated at work by a federal judge." What kind of safety advocacy? Little things like this bombshell testimony at a Mine Safety and Health Administration hearing on mine seals, which "are meant to keep certain atmospheres within mines separated from one another in the event of a blast":
Howard was the only working miner to appear before officials that day. His testimony came in the form of a video he'd shot in his own mine, which was run by the Cumberland River Coal Company, a subsidiary of the second-largest coal producer in the U.S., Arch Coal. Before Howard aired his video in front of a packed room, his attorney, Tony Oppegard, noted repeatedly for the record that what Howard was about to do should be considered protected whistleblower activity under federal law. Indeed, what Howard's video showed were mine seals so fractured that water spurted out through their cracks. (The video can be viewed here.)
He has called anonymous MSHA tip lines to report his mine—and then let everyone know it was him who called—he has filed complaint after complaint, he has filed freedom of information act requests demanding to know the safety plans of the mine he was working in. Then there's this:
...when Howard felt the mine wasn't ventilated as needed, he saw to it that the mine wasn't producing coal.
Howard was assigned to drive the ram car, which hauls the coal from inside the mine to a conveyor belt that then carries it outside. Whenever he deemed the ventilation insufficient, Howard started blocking the roadway with his car to stop production, according to court documents. It was an exceptionally gutsy move, given that every minute a mine doesn't run coal is a minute the mining company doesn't make money. Howard was literally standing in the way of profits.
"You give me air," he'd say, "and I'll give you coal."
This is a brave, stubborn, heroic man who almost has to be considered slightly crazy for stepping so far outside what's safe and normal and doing it so many times. Mine safety should not rely on one man being just crazy enough to do the right thing no matter how much it costs him, but this is the political landscape:
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House committee on education and the workforce, has voiced his opinion that the industry doesn't need new regulations -- it instead needs enforcement of the regulations already in place.
Speaking as a witness at a Congressional hearing on May 4, a representative of the coal lobby went a step further, arguing that the industry should instead be allowed to police itself, through voluntary safety programs.
Without tougher regulations and more meaningful enforcement, it comes down to how willing miners are to call their employers to account and demand safer working conditions. In union mines, they at least have strength in numbers and a contract behind them when doing that, which is why union mines have fewer traumatic injuries and fatalities and at the same time more overall injuries reported—because minor injuries are more likely to be reported rather than covered up. But in non-union mines, all too often it comes down to someone like Charles Scott Howard being brave enough to complain or to just plain stop production. And when there's an industry in which dozens can be and are killed in a single accident, and safety rests on one worker standing up to their employer, that's a sign of a broken system.