Since 29 miners died April 5, 2010, in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, federal safety officials say the coal industry is on pace for an all-time low in workrelated deaths.
It is our fervent hope that continues to be true.
Recent stories quoted U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor Joe Main as saying it appears there is a cultural change in the mining industry that is for the better. As of today, there had been 15 mine-related deaths; the previous low was 18 in 2009.
Main said he believes there are several factors to which the lower numbers can be attributed: blitz inspections of mines with Patterns of Violations (POV); miners who are better educated about their rights to report their safety concerns; and, unfortunately, fewer numbers of workers mining coal.
We’ve always known how dangerous it is to mine coal. The numbers of miners killed in the 20th century totaled in the hundreds. After the Farmington No. 9 explosion in West Virginia in 1968 brought about the Coal Mine Safety Act, the tide did turn somewhat. But as the years passed, many became complacent or put the want for profit above the lives of miners.
The 2010 loss of 29 men at UBB jolted everyone into awareness.
Corners were being cut in mining — and not just in coal mines. Shortly after UBB, a list of mines with patterns of violations numbered 51, with 42 of those coal mines. This year, the list had dwindled to 12, six of them coal mines.
It is a shame that it took the loss of so many lives to make the coal industry clean up its act. But we must emphasize that there can be no let up in the POV listed mines or in the blitz inspections that are helping increase mine safety.
As investigations into the UBB disaster progressed, many miners admitted there were immense safety issues in their mines, but they did not report them to officials in fear of retaliation from their bosses.
Main said that fear is being addressed, with MSHA filing discrimination suits on the miners’ behalf if retaliation appears to be an issue. Opportunities for training and education of miners have increased, as well.
The assistant secretary also said mine operators should receive recognition for their efforts to improve mine safety. While some credit is due for those actions, really, shouldn’t it go without saying that safety should always be the top priority?
Main’s last reason for the improvement in mine-related deaths is the one that is most troubling. The continuing decrease in the number of mines — and therefore miners — is one we unfortunately must become used to.
We know that coal will never return to the employment levels of its heyday. That is why we must concentrate more of our efforts at diversifi cation of our economy. We must work to educate displaced mine workers and others in different vocations where they can be gainfully and safely employed.
There are parallels in the lessons of UBB in all of our lives.
Keeping ourselves, our workplaces, our homes safe is one of the most important things we can do.
— The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia