Coal Tattoo

Why coal miners still die on the job

Today’s Washington Post included a story headlined, “Despite crackdown, nine men have died in U.S. mines since Upper Big Branch.”

The story, by David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy, is worth a read and contains much worthwhile reporting and information, along with some great photographs (which, unfortunately, you can’t get to without first watching an industry ad about “clean coal”).

Fahrenthold and Kindy take a crack at the angle that most of the national media had refused to try, as they prefer to focus only on Massey Energy and its colorful CEO, Don Blankenship. And, the Post got the broader story mostly right.

Readers of Coal Tattoo and the Gazette know that most coal miners who are killed on the job in this country die alone, one by one, crushed by heavy equipment, ground up by runaway machinery, buried beneath collapsed mine roofs. The Post story begins:

In the weeks after the worst U.S. coal-mining accident in 40 years, federal safety inspectors showed up repeatedly at a mine that snakes under the West Virginia hills: Loveridge No. 22.

On July 26, an inspector cited the mine for concerns that walls might crumble. He noted that this made 87 citations for problems with the roof or walls over two years.

Three days later, a chunk of rock 16 feet long and 41/2 feet high broke away from the mine’s wall, according to a federal accident report. Miner Jessie Adkins, 39, was caught beneath it.

He died before he got to a hospital.

Adkins is one of nine men who have died inside U.S. coal mines in the six months since the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia, in which 29 men were killed on April 5.

The story goes on to warn:

This string of accidents has revealed key shortfalls in a push by the Obama administration to improve mine safety.

Federal regulators have increased their inspections at 89 coal mines with poor safety records, including Loveridge. They have also upped their use of orders to shut down mines until safety problems are fixed.

But despite their efforts, five men were killed by heavy machinery; four were killed by falling rock. They died in mines where safety citations had increased about 31 percent after the Upper Big Branch blast.

For safety experts and miners’ families, these recent disasters tell a familiar story: Enforcement efforts have been hampered by a backlogged appeals system and the lack of penalty for repeat offenders. The new federal crackdown still couldn’t ensure safe conditions underground.

But in the end, the story left me hungry, wanting more answers than the piece provided. I worry that the Post’s national audience will walk away thinking that coal is just a dangerous business and miners will inevitably die on the job.

I hesitate to be overly critical, because frankly, I’m just pleased that a major media outlet with a huge audience took the time, space and effort to pay attention to the kinds of mining deaths that are so often ignored. But there are a few things to keep in mind when digesting this Post article.

First, folks should be careful not to be confused — as I initially was — by their numbers. The headline says, “Despite crackdown, nine men have died in U.S. mines since Upper Big Branch.”

OK, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration count has the number of nationwide coal-mining deaths so far this year at 44. Twenty-nine died at Upper Big Branch, and two had died before the April 5 explosion. So that leaves 13 deaths since Upper Big Branch, right?

Well, you have to read the Post story more carefully to understand:

Adkins is one of nine men who have died inside U.S. coal mines in the six months since the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia, in which 29 men were killed on April 5.

Statistically, the government counts their deaths together with those of four men who died in accidents on the surface – driving trucks or operating machinery near mine entrances.

I’m sure the Post didn’t mean to suggest that these four surface deaths don’t matter, but one might get left with that impression, especially at a time when folks in the anti-mountaintop removal movement so frequently insist that strip-mine workers aren’t really miners. And more importantly, there are serious questions about the safety of surface mines, especially as these complexes get larger, the equipment bigger, and the pressure to produce even more intense.  Surface haulage accidents are a particular concern, and in fact more miners died at surface mines last year than in underground operations.

Second, the Post reported:

Most of the nine deaths are still under federal investigation. It’s not clear that federal oversight could have prevented all – or any – of them.

In two cases, the miners were controlling the machines that accidentally crushed them.

There are a couple of problems with that … For one thing, reports on two of the underground mining deaths the Post focused on are already available, and in both cases (see here and here), federal investigators found that the failure of the mine operator to take proper safety precautions contributed to the deaths. Also, a report is in on one of the two instances the Post mentioned regarding miners controlling the machines that accidentally crushed them — and again, MSHA found that a failure by the mine operator to have effective safety policies was at fault.

Third, there are some fascinating quotes in the Post story from industry folks, including this from National Mining Association lobbyist Bruce Watzman:

I wish I could say to you with certainty that you’re going to prevent [all mine deaths] in the future. History has shown us that that’s unfortunately not always the case.  I don’t think that a fatality at a mine reflects a failing on the part of the agency.

And then there’s this from Consol Energy. Chief Operating Officer Nicholas Deluliis regarding those 87 previous roof-control violations at the Loveridge Mine where Jessie Adkins died:

“Violations for roof and rib controls are arbitrary” and based on inspectors’ judgments, he said, referring to the tunnel’s ceiling and walls. “I disagree with the view that there is a systemic problem with the roof or procedures for controlling the roof and ribs at the Loveridge coal mine.”

The comments from Deluliis are especially interesting, coming from an executive at a company whose CEO, Brett Harvey, has very publicly championed the idea that zero fatalities and injuries should be the industry’s goal.

But the Post didn’t mention that, and basically let the idea that some number of miner deaths are inevitable go unchallenged in its story. The Post allows MSHA to blame the continued deaths at least in part on what is really a more recent problem, the high rate of challenges of citations that are clogging up the appeals and enforcement process at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

And, the Post story also blamed “the lack of penalty for repeat offenders” but spends precious little space explaining that MSHA has authority in that area, but simply hasn’t used it. More of a discussion of the findings of last week’s Inspector General’s report on this subject would have helped the story quite a bit, especially in responding to this idea that MSHA chief Joe Main is peddling to the Post reporters:

Main said the deaths since the Upper Big Branch disaster demonstrate that some mining companies are still not addressing safety problems, but rather waiting for federal inspectors to notice them.

“There is a problem in the mining industry. They want MSHA to fire-boss their mines,” he said. A “fire boss,” in mining parlance, is someone who inspects the mine for safety risks.

It’s fascinating that Joe Main made this point to the Post, especially given that about the only thing he didn’t like about last week’s IG report was this:

… The draft report stated that, ‘MSHA’s responsibility is to assure that mine operators protect all workers from mining hazards at all times …’

Main responded:

Simply put, Congress gave mine operators the primary responsibility to prevent unsafe conditions and practices in mines. We are concerned that your articulation of MSHA’s responsibilities obscures the proper placement of that critical legal and moral responsibility to keep miners safe. MSHA cannot be in every mine, every day, on every shift …

… A more accurate description of MSHA’s responsibility is to enforce the law as effectively as possible by using all the enforcement tools at our disposal … in order to promote safe and healthful working conditions for our nation’s miners.

The Inspector General replied:

Our statement and conclusion are based on requirements on the Mine Act that describe MSHA’s roles and responsibilities in setting safety and health standards, identifying instances of non-compliance (including patterns of violations), and compelling mine operators to take timely corrective actions.

These are integral components of the overall system for providing miners with a safe and healthy work environment.

Whenever MSHA does not fulfill these responsibilities, miners may be at risk.