Recently, West Virginia’s mine safety director, Eugene White, admitted to state lawmakers that the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training was behind in implementing certain legislative mandates. These mandates included better methane monitoring and tougher coal-dust control standards. White’s statements were made shortly after three mine workers were killed within a single week.
White noted that the Office was on track to meet another mandate, mine worker drug testing, and that five mine workers had already been stripped of their licenses as a result. However, he had no explanation for why his agency was behind in meeting the other goals. White stated that earlier in the month, the Office had proposed a rule for tougher coal-dust control standards, and that it is now developing plans to cite violations of these standards. Agency officials were also still discussing with both industry and labor how to implement tougher requirements for shutting down equipment whenever explosive levels of methane gas are detected.
While members of the House of Delegates were accommodating of the agency’s slower-than-expected progress, some were troubled by the agency’s embrace of the mining industry’s proposal to just raise penalties for more serious violations, as opposed to an across-the-board increase in safety fines. By contrast, two freshman members of the House who were coal miners objected to the increase in time an apprentice mine worker must work within sight and sound of a supervisor, from 90 days to 120 days. They claimed that it amounted to a “baby sitting service” that interfered with the training of these individuals. The “sight and sound” requirement had come about as a result of a 19-year old mine worker getting killed after the mine company’s management permitted him to work underground for three hours at the Jim’s Branch 3A Mine. The mine worker died after falling onto a conveyor belt that dumped coal into a chute.
The issues discussed demonstrate how complex the larger issue of mine safety can be. Remedies that you would expect to improve the situation, such as more supervision for apprentice mine workers, might in fact make the situation more difficult. Overall, it is encouraging that the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training is serious about stiffening penalties for mining violations. Yet less encouraging are the signs that the Office is more concerned with implementing industry proposals than proposals that might actually harm the mining industry. The drug testing was specifically put into the state mine safety bill last year to appease the industry. Likewise, if the Office increases penalties only for the most serious violations, that does nothing to increase the incentive to avoid more minor violations that could lead to a serious outcome.
Mining is dangerous enough without mining companies cutting corners to save money. Mine workers should be able to expect that their employers have taken every precaution to ensure that they are safe. If your loved one is killed in a mining accident that you believe is due to the mining company’s failure to follow safety regulations, you should contact an experienced West Virginia wrongful death attorney and file a lawsuit for rightful compensation.