Dozens Of Kentuckys Coal Miners Test Positive For Drugs

Dozens Of Kentuckys Coal Miners Test Positive For Drugs

Since a new drug-testing law went into effect this summer, nearly 60 coal miners have tested positive for drug use — 43 in August alone.

The testing is voluntary by coal companies, though coal operators are required to report positive test results to the state. Still, the 59 reported cases seems high, state officials said.

“I was a little taken aback at the number,” said Mike Haines, general counsel for the state Department of Natural Resources, which oversees mine safety.

“I’m not sure what to draw from it yet,” added Haines. “So much of it depends on how many companies are testing.”

Haines said that since testing is voluntary there is no way to know how many companies are participating.

The law, which went into effect July 12, allows companies to choose the type of drug tests they conduct, the number of the substances they detect and how often, if ever, they wish to test their miners. So far, 38 companies have reported positive test results, mostly from a variety of urine tests.

Miners who test positive are immediately dismissed and their certification is suspended, though they may appeal the suspension within 30 days, Haines said.

Out of the 59 cases, 31 miners have appealed to have their suspensions rescinded. All but three of the appeals deal with miners who were taking prescription drugs, mainly painkillers such as hydrocodone and methadone — both narcotics.

In several cases, Haines said, the miners were taking painkillers for back or knee pain.

“Quite frankly, if drug levels are within therapeutic levels, we’ve been rescinding the suspensions,” he said.

Four suspensions have been rescinded, Haines said, and at least another six will be.

While Haines said it was too soon to determine whether the numbers will accurately depict the scope of drug use in Kentucky’s mines, others say the system is deeply flawed.

“There’s a lot of people working hurt who are taking prescription drugs and as long as their doing their job and they’re not in danger, there shouldn’t be an automatic cut off of their mining certificate,” said Tom Moak, a Prestonsburg-based attorney who represents coal miners who have been injured on the job or dismissed due to drug testing.

Haines said miners can avoid being unfairly terminated by informing their employers in advance of prescription drug use. However, Moak said many keep quiet about using painkillers for fear of being viewed as a liability.

It would be better for miners to have a chance to explain their circumstances before having to submit to a drug test, he said.

Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate, said the law should require companies to conduct random drug testing. He questioned whether relying on voluntary testing accurately depicts the problem and suggested that the current number of cases is a conservative figure.

“If there was random testing, I’m sure there would be substantially more people” who test positive for drug use, Oppegard said.

Haines said mine inspectors who believe miners are under the influence of drugs can order companies to conduct drug tests.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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