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Vol. 76/No. 6      February 13, 2012

Wyo. miner fought for
safety, wins job ruling
Cindy Clapp, a shovel operator with 28 years experience at the nonunion Cordero Rojo open pit coal mine near Gillette, Wyo., was fired illegally in March 2010 for raising safety concerns on the job, an administrative law judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission ruled in December.

Clapp operated a 40-by-35 foot shovel truck, which loaded 240-ton haul trucks using a shovel large enough to house a pickup truck.

When the mine installed a new computer system to track “efficiency, asset management, and delay,” the steps included placing 12-inch GPS monitors in the front windows of the cabs of mine equipment.

“About early February 2009, two dozer operators, Leann Schneider and Blair Stugelmeyer, told Clapp over Channel 10 that the screen placement was blocking their vision,” states the ruling by Judge Thomas McCarthy. “Schneider cited a specific incident where a fully-loaded, 240-ton coal truck completely disappeared from her view at a mine intersection.”

The ruling describes how Clapp repeatedly asked to have the monitors moved out of the line of sight. And then when she took action and had a mechanic move the monitor on a piece of equipment, the ruling says her supervisors objected. Clapp told them, “I need to see, I’m responsible down here for not injuring anybody. I have to have my vision.” The response from management was “bend over and look under [the screen].”

The ruling also notes that the company ignored Clapp’s requests for water trucks, used to suppress dust that hinders visibility. Clapp took the initiative to call management “on behalf of several truck drivers on her crew, including Helen Clark, Fallon Halverson, and Bob Brown, because their requests for water were also ignored.”

When Clapp questioned a new procedure that required overloaded haul trucks to dump coal back at the coal face, which Clapp felt was dangerous, she was pressed repeatedly to do it. After two managers and a human resources representative met with Clapp and pressed her to follow the new procedure, she set up a meeting with a higher-up. Her coworker, Michelle Whitted, agreed to join her at that meeting.

A week later, the ruling states, Clapp was called to the corporate office and fired. The next day, Whitted was called to a meeting and told she was losing her “crew training position” and accused of lying about company safety practices.

The judge ordered that Clapp be reinstated, paid lost wages, and fined the company $40,000 because of the “chilling effect that the unlawful discharge of the leading safety advocate had on the willingness of other miners to raise safety issues at the mine.”

Cordero management is appealing the ruling and has declined to talk with the press.

“It’s a dangerous job,” said Helen Meyers, who worked as a haul truck driver at the Coal Creek Mine, just down the road from the Cordero Mine, and also at the Black Thunder Mine in 1999-2000. “You have limited visibility. You have to back up to the shovel using mirrors and you’re driving on roads that are changing constantly and can be unstable.”

Meyers said a similar GPS monitoring system was installed at the mine when she worked there.

“Workers were furious,” she said. “You’re working a 12-hour shift and they would track you when you parked your vehicle to go to the bathroom. If they thought you were going too slow they’d be on the phone screaming at you. They never wanted the shovel to stop loading coal.”

Shirley Hyche, a retired member of the United Mine Workers of America, worked for 27 years at Jim Walters Resources no. 5 mine in Alabama, one of the deepest underground coal mines in the country.

“In a nonunion mine you really don’t have any say-so,” Hyche told the Militant. “And if you do say something, you’re in trouble. I’m surprised that she [Clapp] kept her job as long as she did.”

“But if you do have a union, you need to be active in the union,” Hyche added.

One of the gains that the union fought for in the mine is the safety committee. The committee of workers has the power to halt production if an unsafe situation exists. “The safety committee is very important,” Hyche said. “It lets us know what’s going on, if it’s doing its job.”

Hyche also spoke about the fight by women to get into the coal mines. “I was hired in 1981,” she said. “I left a job at a hospital to go to the mine because I needed more money.” Hyche said there were never more than 30 women in the mine, out of 400 to 500 workers. “Some men didn’t want the women down there,” she said. “They would say it isn’t a woman’s place to be underground. But you have to feed your family as much as they do.”
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