The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 19, 2011

11 panel findings and suggestions for safety improvements

By Taylor Kuykendall
Register-Herald Reporter

BECKLEY — As part of the independent investigation of the April 5, 2010, explosion at Upper Big Branch by the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, the authors of the report offered the following 11 findings that were accompanied by multiple suggestions for safety improvement.

1. The disaster at Upper Big Branch was manmade and could have been prevented had Massey Energy followed basic, well-tested and historically proven safety procedures.

2. The Upper Big Branch mine explosion occurred because of failures of three basic safety practices, a properly functioning ventilation system; adherence to federal and state rock dusting standards; and proper maintenance of safety features on the mine machinery.

3. “Black box” technology must be instituted for mining equipment, including shearers, continuous miners, roof bolters, shuttle cars, motors, conveyors and shields. The black boxes should provide information regarding methane, oxygen, carbon monoxide and coal dust levels.

4. The pre-shift, on-shift examination system established in the 1900s has, in many instances, become a useless exercise. Examiners over-depend on paper, and examinations are a monotonous routine. Evidence showed though certified, some examiners and foremen at UBB were not trained to understand and perform safety inspections and recognize hazards.

5. When federal and state officials face a mine operator who repeatedly ignores, evades or disregards fundamental safety regulations, they must craft enforcement strategies which match the compliance approach of the company. This means using all the administrative and legal authority at the agencies’ disposal.

6. Federal and state mine safety laws allow mine operators to use administrative or judicial review to avoid or delay citations and penalties for years. By litigating citations, the company also stands a good chance of getting the fines reduced to a fraction of the original amount.

7. Miners’ rights to a safe workplace are compromised when the operator’s commitment to production comes at the cost of safety. Workers should not be penalized if operators fail to follow safety requirements so that miners’ interests can be separated from the operator’s interest.

8. The emergency response to the UBB disaster raised concerns about how decision-making was conducted at the Command Center and the manner in which mine rescue teams were deployed underground. Standard protocols were not followed, records were not kept and rescuers’ lives were placed in jeopardy.

9. Investigations of major mining disasters must be conducted in an open, independent and transparent manner that inspires public trust in the fact-finding process and the conclusions that are reached.

10. Testimony from UBB miners indicated some training they received was not effective in educating them about the practicalities of donning rescue devices in a potential emergency situation. Miners at other operations also may not be receiving training.

11. The prevalence of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis among the deceased Upper Big Branch miners (about 75 percent occurrence) is both surprising and troubling.