Inspector Shortage Hampers West Virginia Coal Mine Safety Effort

December 31, 2008

An inability to retain inspectors is hurting West Virginia’s efforts to make the inherently dangerous business of coal mining safer.

Faced with a turnover rate topping 20 percent, the state is scrambling — for the second consecutive year — to perform five mandatory annual inspections at each of the state’s 230 coal mines.

While Director Ron Wooten says his Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training will perform the required 1,150 or so inspections and safety isn’t suffering, the situation raises questions about Gov. Joe Manchin’s pledge to make the state’s coal operations the safest in the nation after 14 miners died in two high-profile January 2006 accidents.

“Obviously it’s a concern, but it’s something the governor and the director are going to have to continue to look at and work on,” said Manchin spokesman Matt Turner.

Hitting the inspection target has come at a price.

The state expects to spend up to $40,000 for 1,000 hours of overtime run up by inspectors this year, though Wooten said empty positions largely offset the expense. And inspectors no longer help with mine rescue team contests nor, as of December, are they presenting fatal accident reports to the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety. The latter change allows inspectors to visit more mines.

Wooten insists safety is not suffering as a result.

“The things that we’re doing, I think, at the mines, lend themselves more to improving safety,” he said. “We didn’t have as many close calls, or haven’t had as many close calls, in 2008 as we did in 2007.”

Fatal accidents also have decreased to eight this year, down from 10 in 2007, according to the agency’s Web site. Injuries increased slightly from 936 in 2007 to 970 as of last week.

Money is at the heart of the problem.

Experienced mine inspectors earn approximately $13,000 more annually working four years for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration than the $49,176 paid to their West Virginia counterparts with two decades of experience, according to a 2006 state report. And inspectors can do even better by taking jobs with mine operators.

“It goes back to their pay,” said Ted Hapney, a United Mine Workers representative on the state Board of Coal Mine Health & Safety.

“Their pay is not comparable to the industry nor is it comparable to the federal inspectors. They make double the money, sometimes even more, than what they’re making now and they go.”

West Virginia’s pay picture has improved a bit.

Inspectors received $3,000 raises atop a 3 percent increase for all state workers this year, putting average pay at about $51,000. But more money hasn’t prevented more departures. Currently, the state has eight unfilled positions, about a 10 percent vacancy rate.

Wooten has proposed another round of raises for fiscal 2010 as part of a multiyear plan developed with Manchin’s office last year to address the fact that West Virginia inspector pay ranks fifth from the bottom among 27 states that employ mine inspectors. While the economy has since soured, Wooten said he still hopes inspectors get raises.

“I’m expecting at least a couple thousand bucks,” he said.

But West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton argues it’s time to change the state’s role. Instead of duplicating MSHA’s efforts, Hamilton suggests spending less time at mines with exemplary safety records to focus on operations with poor safety records.

“It makes virtually no sense for a state inspector to follow a federal inspector around,” Hamilton said. “We routinely see that.”

Instead of serving as enforcers, inspectors could act more as sounding boards for mines grappling with safety issues such as crumbling geology, Hamilton said.

“Today it’s simply a police officer, deputy sheriff type mentality.”

The effect of the inspector shortage on safety is a little unclear so far.

Unlike Kentucky, which recently decided to delay a plan to double the number of safety inspections at state mines next year because of budget problems, West Virginia isn’t cutting back on inspections.

It is, however, cutting back elsewhere.

Wooten’s decision to stop having inspectors present detailed accident reports doesn’t sit well with the state safety board, which is required to review fatalities and adopt rules if necessary.

“We can’t decide whether we need to promulgate a rule if we don’t have the investigator’s information,” said Charles Russell, who represents St. Louis-based mining giant Arch Coal on the board.

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