Safety concerns at Deer Creek Mine result in firing and reinstatement for union members


United Mine Workers of America members of local 1769 and 2176 at the Deer Creek Mine remain locked in a stalemate with Energy West mine over contract negotiations. One of the sticking points is over the makeup of the safety committee. While the company contends safety of the miners is a top priority, a recent incident at the mine continues to reinforce concerns with union members.

On December 17, 2012, Ralph Keele, chairman of the mine safety committee, was on shift and had tagged out seven man trips, four sandiks and four loaders to safety concerns. Upon noticing the tagged out equipment, mine supervisor Rick Poulsen, engaged in a heated discussion with Keele about the equipment and, according to Keele, pushed him up against a man trip.

The next day Keele filed charges with the Emery County Sheriff’s office and notified the Berkshire Hathaway reporting hotline. The sheriff’s office declined to pursue charges because it did not feel it had enough evidence to support the claim of assault.

Keele was assured that the hotline call would remain confidential. He was not allowed to perform any safety checks while the incident was under investigation.

Keele was elected safety chair on March 4, and a few days later his team reported a problem of how pipe was being fabricated. While at the safety office discussing the issue, it is alleged Poulsen spotted Keele and began to scream at him.

Keele then filed a second complaint and was joined by Brian Lee who filed his own complaint. The next day Keele was fired. He stated he was told it was because he had filed a report with Berkshire Hathaway.

Both Keele and Lee then filed a 105(c) complaint with MSHA for retaliation. Lee was not fired, but felt his job was in danger. A third miner, Gordon Manchester, was fired on March 7 and filed a complaint of retaliation with MSHA.

On April 25, MSHA Investigator Danny Vetter filed a legal document stating that the complaint filed by Manchester, which asserted he was suspended without pay for engaging in protected activity, was not frivolously brought. He concluded the same outcome in the complaint that was filed by Keele on April 30.

Both cases were issued an application for temporary reinstatement.

Lee feels the rulings show that Berkshire Hathaway does not have the safety of miners at heart. He has also reached out for help from Utah State Senator David Hinkins. Both the mine and the miners reside in Hinkins’ district. Lee says he has not received any response from the senator.

“Why isn’t David Hinkins involved,” Lee asked. “Are constituents or campaign money more important to him?”

Energy West Spokesperson Maria O’Mara was contacted for comment, but said it is company policy to not comment on personnel matters.

“It is not something we can comment on publicly,” she stated.

Both men are awaiting word as to when they can report back to work. If Energy West accepts the finding, the men will be fully reinstated. If the mine decides to appeal, the evidence will go to a full-court hearing.

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