Editor’s note: This blog is based on an op-ed that appeared in the Beckley Register-Herald.
Every mining death that occurs leaves a lasting impact not only on the victim’s family, but on the community where that miner lived, worked and worshipped. Anniversaries of mine accidents often serve as a painful reminder of the tragic moment that took the life of a loved one and can resonate forever.
On April 5, 2010, at 3:02 p.m., the Montcoal community was forever changed. Twenty-nine miners perished in a massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in the worst coal mining disaster in decades.
An exhaustive investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration followed. Hundreds of hours of witness testimony unearthed disturbing facts about the mine’s workplace culture, its value of production over safety, hidden hazards and a fear of retaliation for miners who spoke up about unsafe practices.
As a result of an ongoing, aggressive investigation by the Department of Justice, three former Massey Energy employees have been charged with federal crimes in the wake of the explosion. Two are in prison. The third awaits sentencing.
But that’s just a start. The culture of mine safety and health had to change, and MSHA had to be part of it.
We began taking action with enhanced enforcement programs, such as impact inspections at mines with compliance problems, and the first use of the revised Pattern of Violations process in the history of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.
In our first screening following those revisions in 2010, 17 mines received potential POV notices. By October 2012, during the third screening, that number had fallen to four. Recent reviews have found that mines that received a potential POV notice have shown signs of improved compliance and lower injury rates.
We reminded the mining industry of their obligations through policy alerts – miners’ safety rights, proper mine ventilation and not providing advance notice of MSHA inspections. We targeted specific rulemaking on spreading rock dust in mines to prevent explosions, requiring examinations by mine operators for better compliance, and overhauling the POV program to rein in chronic violators.
We implemented organizational and administrative changes, splitting the southern West Virginia coal district into two offices to better manage enforcement, and we upgraded the Mt. Hope dust laboratory to a national lab to better manage coal dust and gas analyses.
In partnership with the department’s solicitor of labor, we’ve resolved more than 100,000 cases of contested violations that had piled up before the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.
And we have better education and outreach efforts underway, to encourage mine operators to undertake greater responsibility to find and fix hazardous conditions at their mines, improve industry response in the wake of mine emergencies, and give miners a greater voice in the workplace without the fear of retaliation. In 2012, MSHA filed the most temporary reinstatements than in any other year on behalf of miners who had been fired or otherwise retaliated against for reporting violations.
Most importantly, more miners are going home to their families safe and healthy. Fatality and injury rates in mining reached the lowest level ever in 2011, and preliminary data show that those rates fell even further in 2012.
Based on the results of our own internal review following the UBB tragedy, we’ve identified and implemented dozens of corrective actions.
The Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial stands today in Whitesville. And last Friday, on the 3-year anniversary of the explosion, a memorial marker honoring the 29 miners was placed on the Raleigh County Courthouse lawn. For our part at MSHA, the most compelling commemoration to these men is a renewed commitment to our mission to prevent death, disease and injury, and to promote safe and healthy workplaces for all miners.
Joseph Main is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.