A Kentucky miner who has blown the whistle repeatedly on major coal mining operations over safety issues has been reinstated to work by a federal judge. Kentucky miner Charles Scott Howard, 52, lost his job with Cumberland River Coal Co. shortly after he filed a civil lawsuit last year against his employer for allegedly endangering his and other miners’ with its noncompliance of key federal safety regulations.
In 2010, Mr. Howard complained about a number of safety issues with company managers. Shortly after, he received a head injury on the job that required hospitalization. Several doctors who examined Mr. Howard later cleared him to return to work. One doctor, however, said that while Mr. Howard could return to work, he should not be allowed to work at certain heights.
According to Mr. Howard’s attorneys, Cumberland River then set about using the doctor’s height restriction as a way to bar their client from returning to the mines. The same doctor later changed his report, saying Mr. Howard should not be allowed to work at all because of his head injury. The doctor offered no explanation for the amended diagnosis, noted Margaret Miller, an administrative law judge for the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, and Mr. Howard was laid off hours later. Judge Miller called the doctor’s actions “questionable.”
“It is obvious that [Cumberland River Coal Co.] worked diligently to end Howard’s employment,” Judge Miller wrote in her decision. “The discrimination against Howard ran through [Cumberland River] and its parent, Arch, at the highest management levels.”
In addition to reinstating Mr. Howard, Cumberland River was also ordered to pay a $30,000 fine for violating whistleblower statutes. The U.S. Labor Department recommended a $20,000 penalty, but Judge Miller felt the company’s actions warranted a steeper fine.
The Huffington Post notes that it was at least the third time a judge ordered Mr. Howard reinstated at the mines after being fired for calling out mining executives for their failure to comply with mining safety regulations. In another legal joust, the court ordered Cumberland River to reinstate Howard after firing him pending an investigation of his complaint. At that point the company paid him a full salary with overtime just to stay away from the mines. Mr. Howard consented for a while, but fought to return to work.
In a statement, a lawyer representing Mr. Howard said that the judge’s decision “lays bare Big Coal’s tiresome mantra that safety is its top priority. … At Arch, ‘safety first’ is just a meaningless slogan.”
Mr. Howard said he didn’t care what mining executives thought or what trouble it landed him in, he’d keep standing up for mining safety.
“I’d rather lose my job than lose my life and be taken away from the people who love me,” Howard testified. “These coal operators and coal owners, for over a hundred years now, they’ve tried to put this DNA into the miners — ‘Hey, it’s coal or go. It’s coal or you don’t survive.’ It’s like they’re God.
“They need to revamp their whole philosophy about mining and how they treat people,” he said.