West Virginia Mine Regulators Urge Safety Reforms

January 8, 2014

West Virginia mining regulators are calling for more reforms to protect coal miners’ health and safety.

A report from the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training recommends tougher state standards to prevent explosions and revised inspection and enforcement measures. The report also recommends requiring proximity-detection systems that would prevent common crushing and pinning accidents.

The office released the report ahead of the 2014 legislative session that began Wednesday, the Charleston Gazette reported.

The report also calls for the Legislature and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to provide more money for coal mine regulation and safety training. It says pay increases are needed to maintain a quality inspection staff.

Preliminary federal data released Monday show West Virginia had the most coal mining deaths in 2012, when six workers were killed.

“West Virginia has repeatedly had the highest coal mine fatality and accident totals in the country,” the state agency’s report says. “The state must correct that.”

State inspectors should be given more authority to require hazards to be remedied, to target problem mine operators, and hold corporate officers and mine owners responsible for safety violations, the report says.

“If West Virginia wants safe mines and healthy miners, it must create a culture of safety,” the report says. “Other states have managed to do so, and individual companies have accomplished it.”

In 2012, the Legislature passed mine safety legislation that increased penalties for safety violations, required mine employees in safety-sensitive jobs to undergo random drug screening and required senior mine officials to sign on safety logs regularly. The legislation also included several provisions targeting methane and coal dust levels, both of which played roles in the 2020 Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners.

The mine safety office’s report says more steps are needed and that the state has yet to commit itself to the goal of a safe and healthy mining industry.

“That commitment must start with legislative commitment of the resources needed to communicate that the state is serious about creating and enforcing a system of mine safety,” the report says.

The report’s proximity-detection equipment recommendation addresses an issue raised in a lawsuit filed by Mountain State Justice on behalf of a coal miner and another miner’s widow. The lawsuit alleged inaction by the mine safety office and the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety on rules that would require these systems.

The report also addresses another issue raised by the lawsuit, which alleged that the mine safety board’s makeup creates a situation where no safety issues can be pursued.

The board has six members divided equally between industry representatives and United Mine Workers officials. The report recommends that lawmakers reverse their 2010 decision to eliminate a seventh member who could break tie votes.

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