New Expert Panel Will Look For Ways to Improve Mine Safety

1275249_study_table.jpgFollowing the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, a panel of three mining experts will study ways to improve mine safety and oversee a $48 million foundation. The foundation was the result of a $209 million settlement entered into by Alpha Natural Resources, which purchased Massey Energy Company (the original owner of Upper Big Branch), and the federal government.

The foundation, dubbed the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health, will be headed by Dr. David Wegman, a professor of work environment at University of Massachusetts Lowell; Michael Karmis, director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech; and Keith Heasley, a professor of mining engineering at West Virginia University.

Partially guided by findings from the Upper Big Branch investigation, the panel would consider research areas such as how to monitor gases in mines continuously, rather than periodic monitoring, which is the current method. The panel expects that most of the foundation money will be spent on research, as opposed to staffing or other overhead costs. Funds might be distributed over several years, with the foundation lasting five to eight years overall. That way, the panel members claim, the foundation is most likely to produce meaningful results, as the panel has time to consider several different approaches.

Mines in the United States are generally considered to be safer than mines in other countries, with lower rates of both injury and fatality. However, mining companies in the U.S. have been slow to adopt new technology for mining communication and mine worker tracking. We at the Wolfe Law Firm think that the foundation is a welcome development and hope that it leads to some important changes in the way mining companies operate.

However, mining companies don’t need to wait for studies to come out, prescribing which technological changes to adapt, in order to produce meaningful safety results. One important first step is for mining companies to be honest in seeking out and fixing safety issues. This means keeping accurate log books and not pressuring workers to fill them out inaccurately — as the Upper Big Branch managers shamefully did during the months leading to the accident. This also means allowing mine workers to be human beings, to take legally required rest breaks and not work back-breaking shifts. Finally, it means doing regular safety inspections of frequently used equipment and replacing equipment that is too old.

If your loved one’s employer does not do these basic things, and your loved one is killed in a mining accident, you should hire a West Virginia wrongful death attorney and sue the employer. You would claim that the employer was negligent, both for not testing equipment that could be reasonably tested and fixed, and for not letting workers take mandated rest breaks (if the cause of death was from fatigue and malfunctioning equipment). For relief, you would seek damages in the form of lost wages, lost support and services, and pain and suffering.

If you or your loved one were injured in a work site accident, you would not be able to sue the employer if it kept workers compensation insurance. By law, employers must keep this insurance, and in return, workers automatically waive their right to sue, and instead receive workers compensation payments until they are presumably well enough to work. However, if your employer does not keep this insurance, then you should be permitted to exercise your rights.