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Troubling stories in mine safety

We had written earlier this year about a spate of miner deaths, especially in West Virginia. Unfortunately, the mining death toll has increased with three more miners perishing on the job in as many days in West Virginia, Illinois and Wyoming. One succumbed to a head injury, one was crushed by a cart underground, and and one was killed by a dozer.

On the state and national level, regulators are failing to protect miners’ safety.

Just last week, West Virginia’s mine safety board rejected a regulation that could help prevent crushing injuries and deaths underground. The rule would have required coal companies to put proximity detection systems on equipment to stop machines when a worker gets too close. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has been pushing two similar rules.

Appallingly, the board vetoed the rule even after hearing the heart-wrenching story of Caitlin O” Dell, the widow of one of the fatalities being discussed in that day’s meeting. Her husband, Steven O” Dell, was crushed to death in early December 2012 by a maintenance “scoop” vehicle in the Alpha Natural Resources coal mine where he worked, the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. reports. Just three weeks after Steven O” Dell died on the job, his son, Andrew O” Dell was born. Caitlin O” Dell was sure to bring baby Andrew to the meeting of the mine safety board so that its members could meet this youngster who would never meet his father.  

Ward points to a larger problem in West Virginia’s mine safety:  

While the board’s inaction yesterday was almost impossible to understand, the root of the problems with mine safety in West Virginia are with lawmakers and the governor’s office.

Take the recent methane monitor issue. This was supposed to be a major part of the bill in which lawmakers responded to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. But leading mine safety advocates in the Legislature did little — if anything — to monitor whether the board was properly implementing the bill. So far today, I haven’theard anyone from the Legislature criticizing the board’s inaction on proximity devices, or promising to haul board members into a committee meeting to demand answers and action.

Or consider Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. We” ve written many times before here about how his “comprehensive” mine safety legislation was anything but. If you think it was comprehensive, then explain why it didn’thave a mandate for proximity detection systems.

Rather than be a real leader on mine safety issues, Gov. Tomblin has continually perpetuated the myth that dead coal miners are just a cost of doing business for coal companies and a cost of a coal economy for coalfield communities — “accidents happen,” the governor has said.

Appalling. Inexcusable. Outrageous. Those are just some of the words that come to mind when we hear Gov. Tomblin’s sickening perspective.

Meanwhile, on the national mine safety front, Joseph Main, the head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, addressed this weekend’s trio of mining fatalities.

“Three miners killed on three consecutive days is extremely troubling,” he said. “The fact that that this occurred over the weekend, when there may be a greater expectation an MSHA inspector would not be present, is a red flag.”  

But for those living under a rock for the past week, the government shutdown is hampering MSHA’s ability to conduct said inspections. More than half of MSHA’s staff is furloughed.  

The government shutdown might make mine operators consider cutting corners on safety if they think it’s unlikely that Uncle Sam will come knocking on their doors.

From the Center for Effective Government:

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which is responsible for ensuring the health and safety of miners, now has only about 40 percent of its staff working, resulting in limiting mine inspections to “activities, which if not performed, would significantly compromise the safety of human life in the Nation’s mines.” Hazard inspections will be limited to “those conditions and practices which have been recent key causes of death and serious injury,” although investigations will be conducted for accident and miner safety complaints. This means that serious hazards that don’trepresent imminent threats to human life, many of which are frequently implicated in substantial harm to mine workers’ health and safety, may go undiscovered and unaddressed during the shutdown period.

As Ward so astutely points out:  

We may not know yet exactly why and how these three coal miners — Roger R. King, Robert Smith, Chris Stassinos — died, and whether the government shutdown was one of the causes. But given what we do know about the dangers of the mining industry, the history of the industry’s refusal to comply with safety rules, and MSHA’s own weaknesses even when it’s at full staffing, can our nation’s coal miners really afford for more safety inspections to be missed?

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