Coal Miner Alleges Discrimination for Reporting Safety Issues at Western Kentucky Plant

Feb 18, 2014
Originally published on February 18, 2014 7:11 pm

A Western Kentucky coal miner is alleging several counts of workplace discrimination, after he reported safety problems at his job and was fired.

Patrick Shemwell worked at a coal plant operated by Ken American in Muhlenberg County. He initially filed six discrimination complaints against his employer, saying he was retaliated against and ultimately fired for reporting safety problems at the prep plant. The company settled, and Shemwell got his job back. But according to the lawsuits filed last week, almost immediately, more problems arose. He reported unsafe conditions, was reassigned to equipment on which he had no training, received a death threat, and ultimately was fired again.

Tony Oppegard is Shemwell’s attorney. Since 1977, the federal Mine Safety and Health Act has protected miners from discrimination for reporting safety issues, and "my guess is that Patrick has filed more discrimination cases under that law than any other miner in the country during that time period," Oppegard says. 

Oppegard filed four cases on Shemwell’s behalf last week. The Mine Safety and Health Administration declined to pursue the issues, so the cases will go before the federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

“We think all these cases are meritorious,” he says. “[Shemwell] had an incredible amount of protected activities—those are safety complaints, calls to the MSHA hotline, talking to MSHA inspectors—because he really was a safety advocate on the job.”

But because MSHA isn’t filing its own discrimination complaint, Shemwell can’t be temporarily reinstated at his job and is currently out of work.

Oppegard doesn’t expect the cases to be resolved before this summer. No one answered the phones Tuesday afternoon at the number listed for Ken American Resources.

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