The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


September 13, 2008

MSHA’s focus on drug, alcohol abuse in mines misplaced

guest column


Our concern with MSHA’s recent proposed rule for wide-scale drug and alcohol testing is not based on the safety aspects of the rule, but instead with the implication that this is such a big problem in the coal mines that thousands of hours of government employees’ time and millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money should be spent on developing and enforcing a nationwide regulation that is largely unneeded.

Indeed, in none of the recent major coal mine disasters — Sago, Aracoma, Darby and Crandall Canyon — was there any indication of drugs or alcohol being contributing factors to those tragedies. In each of those cases, the actions or inactions of mine management and MSHA itself were to blame. It’s interesting that in the wake of the devastating reports about MSHA’s actions in the Crandall Canyon tragedy, the agency’s distracting response has been to propose this drug testing rule.

There are clearly more pressing safety and health issues that should be drawing MSHA’s time and attention, but aren’t. For example, data published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health show that the insidious and nearly always fatal black lung disease — caused by too much coal and silica dust in the mine atmosphere — is once again on the rise, afflicting thousands of miners, even younger miners who have been working in the industry only a short time.

The UMWA has been aggressively seeking action from MSHA to protect miners from respirable coal and silica dust for many years, yet nothing has happened. Action in this area would save far more lives in our industry and be a better use of government resources and taxpayer dollars than the proposed rule on drug and alcohol testing.

The UMWA supports actions that make coal miners safer and healthier on the job. Our concern is that government resources and money are being misplaced here, when far more critical issues remain unaddressed.

— Roberts is the international president of the United Mine Workers of America.

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