US miner sued for reporting unsafe work conditions

After a Kentucky miner reported what he considered to be unsafe working conditions he was fired from his job and sued by his former employer.

The trouble began when Reuben Shemwell, a 32-year-old miner, employed as a welder at the Parkway Mine Surface Facilities, filed a complaint regarding the level of fumes he was exposed to.

Shemwell recommended a respirator be provided to protect himself and others from the fumes generated from the welding process. He did not feel comfortable working in small, confined spaces overcome with fumes, reported.

The miner’s defence attorney Tony Oppegard said the law suit was an example of intimidation.

“I’ve been representing miners in safety discrimination cases for more than 30 years, and this is the first time I know of anywhere in the country where a company has sued a miner for filing a discrimination complaint,”  Oppegard said in an interview with the Huffington Post.

“We think the reason they filed [the suit] was to intimidate him and to intimidate other miners.”

Shortly after submitting his complaint with the Secretary of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in late 2011, he was fired from his job for “excessive cell phone use” at work.

Shemwell says the accusation is untrue, instead he believed he was dismissed for reporting the company’s unsafe work practices.

When MSHA officials tried to inspect Shemwell’s former work area, Armstrong Coal, the company that runs the mine, shut down the site and dismissed another ten employees.

Shemwell attempted to sue his employer for wrongful dismissal, the judge ruled to temporarily reinstate the miner but the case was eventually dropped and he was again was forced to leave his job.

Following the miners lawsuit Armstrong Coal launched a claim against Shemwell on the basis that he filed a “false discrimination claim” against them, which would be a “wrongful use of civil proceedings”.

The company claimed that this “frivolous lawsuit” cost them “unnecessary and substantial costs” in legal fees.

Armstrong Coal’s approximate annual revenue is $300 million.

Oppegard believes the company filed the suit to discourage Shemwell and other employees from ever blowing the whistle on them, he said this is a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” the Huffington Post reported.

“Miners who wish to avoid similar treatment, will be hesitant from asserting their rights,” the MSHA wrote in a separate complaint they filed against Armstrong.

The MSHA’s complaint alleges that the company’s lawsuit was an act of “retaliation and/or discrimination”.

The complaints and lawsuits from both sides have created a fierce, and albeit expensive legal battle between a lucrative company and its former employee.

“We, as miners, have rights,”  Shemwell said.

“They just don’t want us to know about them."

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