Important changes since Upper Big Branch disaster, but coal miner deaths continue

April 5, 2015 will mark the fifth anniversary of the coal dust explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine (UBB). It was the worst disaster in 40 years in the US coal industry.

Since then, some things have changed in coal mine safety. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in particular, has focused much of its attention on ways to address failures identified by the UBB disaster. Browse through the agency’s press releases dating back to May 2010 and you’ll see quite a few with some connection to UBB.

You’ll notice, for example, recaps of the agency’s “impact inspections,” a program that began in April 2010 and continues today.  The target of these special inspections are mining operations with a poor history of complying with safety and health regulations, above average injury rates, or evidence of practices to thwart mine inspectors from observing hazardous conditions. To-date, MSHA has conducted 896 impact inspections, which have resulted in more than 15,000 citations and orders.

You may recall that managers at the UBB mine had code words and other tactics to alert personnel that mine inspectors were on the property. During these impact inspections, MSHA uses a number of strategies to hinder the deception, or as MSHA chief Joe Main says, "catch opeartors off guard." These strategies include:

"... late afternoon or evening arrivals at the mine site, driving unmarked government vehicles, and seizing mine phones to thwart communication between mining personnel working on the surface and those working underground."

Regrettably, both impact and routine inspections find mine operators still violating standards that led to the death of the 29 men at UBB.  For example, a recent impact inspection at Ervin Stiltner's No. 2 Mine, in Wise County, Virginia revealed accumulations of coal dust up to 2 feet thick covering 50 feet in numerous place. Water sprays designed to suppress coal dust were not working because the water supply was not turned on. Plus, the mine operator failed to follow his approved ventilation plan. To those who know what happened at UBB, those grave hazards will sound horribly familiar.

Looking at MSHA's post-UBB news releases, you’ll also see that the agency has filed a record number of cases on behalf of miners who have been retaliated against for complaining about safety problems. In 2014, the agency took such action for 49 mine workers. Fear of retaliation was a common theme heard from miners who worked at UBB.

The agency has also been filing lawsuits to compel mine operators to pay monetary penalties (but with mixed results.) Massey Energy had racked up nearly $2 million in penalties, but had paid just one third of them.

You’ll also see that MSHA issued several new regulations. There’s one strengthening the requirements for coal mine operators to apply "rock dust" to make coal dust inert and less explosive. There’s another enhancing requirements for mine operators to conduct pre-shift, on-shift, and weekly examinations for hazards. Yet another put in practice a provision of the Mine Act that had never been used. It defined the criteria and procedures to be used by the agency to classify a mining operation as one with a “pattern of violations.” With that designation, mine inspectors can order workers out of the mine when they observe certain serious violations of safety regulations.

Despite these changes, mine workers continue to die on the job. Since the Upper Big Branch disaster, 97 coal miners and 107 miners who extract many other types of ore, have suffered fatal traumatic injuries in the US mining industry.

For the 97 coal miners who died on-the-job in the past five years, they did not perish from dust explosions, like the one that killed the UBB miners. They were killed by being struck by mobile equipment, crushed by a collapsing mine roof or rib, caught in machinery, and other causes. The 97 coal miners worked in 13 different States, including Arizona, Tennessee and Utah. Thirty-two and 26 of the coal miner deaths occurred in West Virginia and Kentucky, respectively. A few died along with a co-worker but the majority died one at a time.

Some things have changed for the better since the UBB disaster. MSHA has certainly taken steps to make its enforcement program more effective. But for the families of the 97 coal miners who died on the job since the UBB disaster, the changes put in place did nothing to save their loved ones’ lives. There's still much work to do.

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For every disaster, researchers must look back to see what went wrong so that they can be able to make future prevention and apply better strategies to increase the level of safety.

By Bongani Maphosa (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

I agree with you Bongani. Instead of actually fixing the problem they tend to look for someone to blame.

By Muradzikwa SC (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

I agree with you Bongani. Instead of actually fixing the problem they tend to look for someone to blame.

By Muradzikwa SC (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

It is sad to hear that miners are still losing their lives due to unresponsive mine management. I think the government can more than inspection visits such as establishing laws that make these mines pay out large sums to the families of the miners who die on the work site due to hazardous working conditions. This will force their hands to improve the working conditions.

I agree with Ellen the government can do more. They can also deploy these government inspections on a permanent basis. Allow the inspectors to stay on the mining site for a while inspecting the working conditions and talking to the miners. This will ensure that there will not be any cover ups by mine management since the inspectors will be on site everyday.