On July 25, the 10th death at U.S. coal mines was record in 2017, compared to eight in 2016. This uptick in fatalities is a disturbing trend that has hit hardest among workers with less than year experience at the given mine and has the federal regulators and the United Mine Workers of America (UAW) at odds while both search for ways to stem the tide of accidents.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has launched 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 UAW, says the agency initiative falls short because 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,” UAW president Cecil Roberts wrote in a recent letter to the federal agency.
Patricia Silvey, a deputy assistant secretary at MSHA, said eight of the coal miners who died this year had less than a year's experience at the mine where they worked, the Associated Press reported.
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 accident 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 Pennsylvania each had one coal mining death. Nine of the miners killed this year had several years’ experience working at other mines.
MSHA’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.
MSHA says it will visit mines to 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’s part,” the letter said.
A former MSHA official said the agency would be tying the hands of inspectors if they don't allow them to write citations on the training visits.
“The record low fatal injury rate among coal miners in recent years is because of strong enforcement of the law,” said Celeste Monforton, who served on a governor-appointed panel that investigated West Virginia's 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners. There were 12 coal mining deaths in 2015 and 16 in 2014. “It would be a disgrace to see that trend reversed.”
MSHA’s top position has been vacant since former Assistant Secretary of Labor Joe Main left in January.