Aggressive inspections at troubled mines are helping create safer working environments for coal miners, the head of the federal government’s mine safety agency said during a visit to Kentucky.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration Director Joe Main met with state officials and miners late last week in Frankfort.
“It’s no secret that Kentucky has a large share of the mining deaths, and we need to be looking at how we can send miners home safe every day,” Main said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
Freddie Lewis, who was named as executive director of the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing earlier this month, said he appreciated meeting with Main in person. He said they discussed ways to share information and work to get better compliance out of scofflaw operators.
“If we have an operator in our state that is what you might call an outlaw, rogue operator, we want to work together and use whatever means necessary to take care of that problem,” Lewis said.
Main and Lewis agreed that stepped-up inspections and enforcement at troubled mines are crucial to improving safety in the industry. Main says MSHA’s “impact inspections” take extra steps to keep coal operators from giving advance warning to miners when inspectors show up.
The inspections were created in the wake of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia in 2010, which killed 29 people and was the deadliest coal mining incident in four decades. MSHA announced earlier last week that impact inspections caught West Virginia coal companies on three occasions illegally warning miners that federal inspectors were onsite. And last month, inspectors issued 101 citations at six Kentucky mines.
“There’s a number of operators that do operate safe mines every day and there are some that just challenge the law,” said Main, who became MSHA chief in 2009.
For the special inspections, investigators show up at the mines unannounced in unmarked cars and attempt to get into the mine while preventing workers outside from calling in a warning. In some cases, the inspectors walk a great distance into the mine on foot to maintain the element of surprise.
“It takes a lot of work, a lot of craftiness on the part of our inspectors and it’s not always successful,” he said. “But where we have been successful those conditions that we’ve found at times have been quite disturbing.”
Main said the inspections, along with the use of a federal court process that can put a mine under a federal judge’s oversight, have led to safer working conditions across the industry.
U.S. coal mining deaths dropped in 2011 to the second lowest level since the federal government began keeping records more than a century ago. There were 21 deaths nationally, with eight in Kentucky and six in West Virginia, down from 48 in 2010.