Coal mine deaths surge past 2016 to­tal

Work­ers new to a site are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble as safety of­fi­cials and union dis­agree on han­dling.

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Dy­lan Lo­van

LOUISVILLE, KY.» Deaths in U.S. coal mines this year have surged ahead of last year’s, and fed­eral safety of­fi­cials say work­ers who are new to a mine have been es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to fa­tal in­ci­dents.

But the na­tion’s coal miner’s union says the mine safety agency isn’t tak­ing the right ap­proach to fix­ing the prob­lem.

Ten coal min­ers have died on the job so far this year, com­pared to a record low of eight deaths last year.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion is re­spond­ing to the uptick in deaths with a sum­mer ini­tia­tive, send­ing of­fi­cials to ob­serve and train min­ers new to a par­tic­u­lar mine on safer work­ing habits. The push comes dur­ing a tran­si­tion for the agency, amid sig­nals from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump that he in­tends to ease the in­dus­try’s reg­u­la­tory bur­den.

The miner’s union, the United Mine Work­ers of Amer­ica, says the agency ini­tia­tive falls short.

It notes fed­eral in­spec­tors who con­duct such train­ing vis­its are barred from pun­ish­ing the mine if they spot any safety vi­o­la­tions.

“To take away the in­spec­tor’s right to is­sue a vi­o­la­tion takes away the one and only en­force­ment power the in­spec­tor and the agency has,” union pres­i­dent Ce­cil Roberts wrote in a re­cent let­ter to the fed­eral agency.

Pa­tri­cia Sil­vey, a deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary at the Mine Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion, or MSHA, said eight of the coal min­ers who died this year had less than a year’s ex­pe­ri­ence at the mine where they worked.

“We found from the stats that cat­e­gory of min­ers were more prone to have an ac­ci­dent,” Sil­vey said in an in­ter­view be­fore the 10th death oc­curred at mine in Penn­syl­va­nia on July 25.

Sil­vey pointed to a death last May at West Vir­ginia’s Pin­na­cle Mine where a miner rid­ing a trol­ley rose up and struck his head on the mine roof.

She said the fa­tal­ity could have been due to the miner’s un­fa­mil­iar­ity with the mine.

The miner had worked there nine weeks, ac­cord­ing to an in­ci­dent re­port. And in the most re­cent death, a miner

less than two weeks into the job at a mine in east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia was run over by a bull­dozer July 25.

Five of the 10 coal min­ing deaths this year have oc­curred in West Vir­ginia, and two more in Ken­tucky. Alabama, Mon­tana and Penn­syl- va­nia each had one coal min­ing death.

Nine of the min­ers killed this year had sev­eral years’ ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing at other mines.

The mine safety agency’s in­jury num­bers show that work­ers who were new to a mine had more than dou­ble the in­juries. Go­ing back to Oc­to­ber 2015, min­ers who worked at a spe­cific mine less than a year suf­fered 903 in­juries, com­pared to 418 for min­ers work­ing at a mine one to two years.

The mine safety agency says it will visit mines and “of­fer sug­ges­tions” on train­ing min­ers who have been at a mine less than a year.

Sil­vey said the union is cor­rect that in­spec­tors won’t be writ­ing safety vi­o­la­tions, but that the ini­tia­tive “has in no way un­der­mined our reg­u­lar in­spec­tion pro­gram.”

The miner’s union said the fed­eral agency should not ex­pect safety sug­ges­tions to carry the same weight as ci­ta­tions and fines.

“To be­lieve that an op­er­a­tor will com­ply with the law on their own free will is con­trary to his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence and naive on MSHA’ part,” the let­ter said.

The mine safety agency’s top po­si­tion has been va­cant since for­mer As­sis­tan Sec­re­tary of La­bor Joe Main left in Jan­uary Main, a for­mer miner’s union of­fi­cial, fo cused on elim­i­nat­ing haz­ards at trou­bled mines by in­creas­ing ag­gres­sive in­spec tions.

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