W. Va. Mine Safety Chief Worries About Shortage of Inspectors

June 5, 2007

West Virginia is looking for a few good mine inspectors, but the state’s safety chief doesn’t know where they’ll come from.

Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training told lawmakers Sunday he plans to hire 10 new mine safety inspectors in the coming fiscal year, in addition to the 85 currently employed by the state.

But with competition from higher-paying jobs in private industry and the federal government, Wooten worries that’s easier said than done.

“They’re not the easiest folks to come by,” he said.

Wooten said the agency has been paying inspectors overtime simply to comply with the mandated inspection workload. State law requires the 177 underground mines to be inspected four times a year, and the more than 500 surface mines to be inspected twice annually.

“When we have to work overtime to meet our statutorily mandated inspections, that’s when we need more inspectors,” Wooten said.

Complicating the recruiting, though, is the fact that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is simultaneously canvassing the state for new inspectors.

Although West Virginia pays new inspectors more, after about five years federal salaries surpass state wages. At the very top of the pay scale, federal inspectors can earn roughly $30,000 more than their state counterparts, Wooten said.

“They’re just paying more dollars,” said Delegate Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur.

Wooten said the state mine safety office will begin advertising for the new positions, highlighting some of the competitive features, such as a 40-hour workweek split into four days.

Wooten also updated lawmakers on the closure of a Raleigh County mine last week. State inspectors ordered the mine closed after it failed to comply with a law requiring mines to have emergency rescue air packs in storage.

Although every miner at Baylor Mining Inc.’s Beckley Crystal Mine was outfitted with an air pack, the company had only 25 percent of its required storage total – and those were sitting outside the mine.

“They weren’t doing anybody any good at all,” Wooten said. “They weren’t protecting anybody.”

The mine has since begun operating again, after the company purchased the required air packs from a different vendor. All told, about 30 mines around the state so far have been cited for failing to comply with the air pack law.

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