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Fallen workers are remembered at Capitol

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A safe working environment and stronger enforcement of labor laws were called for Saturday by numerous policymakers from across the state.

"Workers are making money for the companies, but the companies aren't taking care of their workers," said Kenneth Perdue, president of the state AFL-CIO.

The West Virginia AFL-CIO and Kanawha Valley Labor Council hosted a ceremony Saturday at the Capitol Complex in Charleston honoring 21 West Virginia workers who died on the job last year.

"Safe Jobs. Save Lives. Keep the Promise Alive," said a poster one person carried at the Workers Memorial Day ceremony.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., pointed out that nearly 6,000 workers die in the United States every year, while 3 million get injured and another 60,000 die from job-related illnesses.

"I introduced legislation to increase whistleblowers protection for all workers," Rockefeller wrote in a letter read during the ceremony.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said, "We should not go through this, especially UBB. That should never happen."

In April 2010, the Upper Big Branch Mine exploded and killed 29 miners in a Massey Energy Co. mine in Raleigh County.

"We have to empower workers to have the safest working conditions. Workplace safety should be foremost," Manchin said. "If you can't do it safely, don't do it. If you can't mine safely, don't do it. If you can't manufacture something safely, don't do it.

"We are working hard on the Byrd Safety Bill," he added, "but I can't guarantee anything will happen by November."

Named after West Virginia's late U.S. senator, the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act would strengthen the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's powers to inspect mines, increase fines and authorize more independent investigations of mine deaths.

Joe Carter, president of District 17, based in Charleston, said, "I have been involved with the coal industry for 35 years. I believe all these accidents are preventable if the miners are empowered to say, 'This is safe.'"

Carter said pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung disease, is on the rise again, especially among younger miners.

"They are breathing too much coal dust," Carter said. "It is a silent killer. They are not on this list. A lot of miners are on their deathbeds and we don't even know about them."

Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper asked, "Why in the world would you have to argue for a safe workplace?"

Carper also called for stronger enforcement of labor laws and prevailing-wage requirements, especially on projects operated by contractors working for larger companies.

Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, said the Legislature should pass stronger legislation to protect worker safety.

"We will work to live," Poore said, "but we will not die to work."

Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw, who grew up in Tipple, a Wyoming County coal town, said, "We were always aware of the danger of mining coal. Going to school, people were always concerned about safety in the mines."

Perdue said, "You never know when your time is up."

He then read a list of explosions that killed 550 miners at the Monongah Mine in 1907, 78 miners at Farmington No. 9 in 1968, 12 miners at the Sago Mine in 2006 and 29 miners at Upper Big Branch in 2010.

Perdue also mentioned the Fayette County Hawks Nest Tunnel project, along the New River, that caused at least 764 workers to die from acute silicosis in the early 1930s and the Willow Island cooling tower collapse, near St. Mary's, that killed 51 construction workers in 1978.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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