Recent mining disasters prompt new federal, state safety laws

Recent mining disasters prompt new federal, state safety laws

Leon Napier admits that sometimes he and his buddies cut corners while mining underground. Maybe a ventilation curtain wouldn’t stay up, maybe a coal-cutting machine was driven through a shortcut instead of on a safe pathway.

Mostly, he says, the shortcuts were taken to speed up production.

“To run coal the right way — the safe way — you won’t run as much coal,” says Napier, 46, who retired three years ago after working 28 years in Eastern Kentucky’s coal fields.

After two major coal mine disasters this year, new federal and state laws have been passed to save miners from explosions, fires, rockfalls and other hazards.

Kentucky’s law, effective Wednesday, will require mine managers to report a serious injury or fatality to state officials within 15 minutes, to have two air packs available for each miner, and to conduct escape drills every 90 days, among other new rules.

The state also gained the power to fine mines in violation of the rules, and increased the number of underground inspections from two to three annually.

But some longtime miners, like Napier, say it’s going to take more than air packs and escape drills to create a safer working environment.

It’s going to take a change in attitude.

“Until we get mine managers to take the responsibility for their employees and start caring about human lives, that’s not going to matter,” said Carl Potter, an Oklahoma-based mine safety consultant.

Allen Turner, a Harlan County miner, said workers should also take safety more seriously.

“You can do things to make your job easier, but it’s not necessarily safer,” he said.

The new federal Miner Act, and recent state laws passed in coal mining states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and Illinois, come within months of the Sago mine explosion in January, where 12 West Virginia miners died.

With Appalachia still reeling, a May 20 explosion at Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County killed five more miners. The number of miners killed this year has already reached 33 — 11 more than in 2005.

While investigators probe the Sago and Darby fatalities, lawmakers have scrambled to pass laws designed to increase the chance of survival in the event of another disaster.

West Virginia’s new mine safety law, already in effect, mandates that miners be provided with emergency communicators, tracking devices and extra air supplies underground.

The disasters also spurred federal legislation requiring miners to have more oxygen supplies, and for mine rescue teams to be within an hour’s distance. Mine operators are also required to have new devices that track and communicate with trapped miners in place within three years.

While the new laws have either gone into effect or are about to, there is a lag in the practical effect of the law as regulators draw up enforcement rules and approve new equipment.

But are new rules the answer?

“I would argue we have enough laws,” said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. “Once the dust settles, you’ll see if there was a series of occurrences that resulted in Darby and Sago. More than likely these were violations of current existing laws — I don’t think the new laws would have much impact.”

Industry observers say the laws focus too much on disaster survival, instead of disaster prevention.

Caylor said regulators should put more weight on the “behavior modification” of miners — changing unsafe habits to prevent future disasters.

“Probably, more laws would not have prevented the Sago or Kentucky Darby disasters,” he added.

Both Caylor and Potter said government inspectors visiting mines should observe and train more and police less. They said inspectors typically enter mines looking for violations, but don’t spend enough time with miners to ensure that the mine is functioning properly — and not covering anything up during routine inspections.

Napier, who spent half of his career as a mine foreman, said that the short visits allow mines to clean up their act for inspectors, then resume their flawed ways afterward.

“When the inspection was over,” Napier said of some of the mines he worked for, “they went back to the way it was.”

However, other experts, like Bruce Watzman, disagree, saying inspectors do help coal operators and workers.

“When inspectors are underground, they’re with the miners,” said Watzman, vice president of health and safety for the National Mining Association, which influenced the federal legislation. He added, “It’s not like they go down there in a vacuum.”

Watzman said the new laws will make a difference in saving miners, though he said the federal legislation has room for improvement. He said what’s missing is provisions to ensure that inspectors spend more time evaluating the most potentially hazardous areas of the mines and to mandate random drug testing of all mine employees.

As he prepared for another shift underground, Turner said he thinks the new laws would be “pretty good as long as they keep at them and not let it go after a while.” But he wondered if all the interest in safety will fade in time.

“It used to be people didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to safety. All this stuff has happened and it’s changed a lot of people’s attitude,” he said.

“It gets everybody thinking that the most important thing is making a living for your family and coming back to them every day.”


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