The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 5, 2013

Mine safety: Board rejects proximity detector regulation

FLATWOODS — Over the objections of a coal miner’s widow and representatives from the United Mine Workers of America, West Virginia’s mine safety board has rejected a regulation that could help prevent crushing injuries and deaths underground.

The West Virginia Coal Association has long opposed the regulation, while union safety advocates and victims’ families push for it, The Charleston Gazette reported. At a meeting in Flatwoods this week, association vice president Chris Hamilton again told the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety that the rule needs further study and discussion.

It would have required coal companies to put proximity detection systems on equipment to stop machines when a worker gets too close. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has been pushing two similar rules.

Caitlin O’Dell lost her husband, Steven, last December in an accident at a mine operated by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources. She told the board she was disappointed as she left carrying the baby boy her husband never met.

“If you can’t agree on something, it’s going to happen again,” she told board members, “and at that point, the blood is on your hands.”

West Virginia led the nation in coal mining fatalities last year, with seven of the 20 miners killed on the job.

MSHA said that’s down from 21 in 2011. But director Joe Main has tried to focus safety inspection efforts on some of the most common causes of injury and death, and moving equipment is one of them.

Between 1984 and 2010, MSHA says, 30 miners died and 200 were injured nationwide when they became crushed, pinned or struck by continuous mining machines underground.

One pending federal rule would require shutdown systems on continuous mining machines. Another, stalled at the Office of Management and Budget in the White House for more than two years, would address all other mobile equipment.

Hamilton suggested the board schedule meetings around the state to discuss the rule and the use of cameras, strobe lights, reflective clothing and other possible safety steps.

The UMWA members on the board rejected that, saying debate has gone on long enough.

“There’s been a whole bunch of fatalities and nothing’s been done,” said representative Carl Egnor. “It’s time this board do something.”

Terry Hudson, a board member and representative of St. Louis-based Patriot Coal, supported a motion for more review and meetings but said his vote shouldn’t be interpreted as a deliberate delay.

“We’re going to be looking at this long and hard and quickly,” he said. “We need to put this on the front burner and start moving forward with it. I’m not trying to delay, but we need to work on this.”

After the industry’s motion failed on a tie vote, so did the plan to approve the regulation.

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