Unions often claim Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is anti-labor. But he is strongly backing Department of Labor efforts to punish coal mines that tampered with dust samples used to monitor miners' risk of black lung disease.

"When it comes to health and safety issues, I'm with the workers. I'm with those who have to go and work in these unpleasant conditions," Hatch said in a press conference Friday.Sixteen Utah mines were among those accused by Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin this week of such tampering. Hatch, ranking Republican on the Senate Labor Committee, said Martin warned him such charges were coming during their frequent chats.

"And I told her yesterday, `More power to you, Lynn Martin.' There's no reason in this world why business people should defraud working people by sending in improper medical information," Hatch said.

That might surprise some who often see Hatch as being anti-labor. For example, the AFL-CIO gave him a "failing" score of 33 out of 100 on his votes last year.

But he is siding with labor against coal companies on this issue.

"You know black lung disease is one of the most serious, difficult diseases in our country. And these people go through the danger every day when they go down in those mines," Hatch said. "I'm all for her cracking them (mines in violation) real hard. I think there's no excuse for that."

He even said such tampering is as dangerous to miners as a fire in Utah's Wilberg Mine in 1984 that killed 27 miners.

"I look back at the Wilberg Mine disaster and realize . . . this is in some respects just as bad because they're fabricating reports, according to the department of Labor and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, in order to save money at the health expense of their workers.

"Now I can't imagine why any enlightened business person would want to do that."