By Kate Coil
For The Register-Herald
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called for more protection for miners who report safety violations as well as incorporating new technology into mine safety efforts during a forum on mine safety at Concord University Wednesday.
Coal industry leaders, union representatives, and the widow of a miner killed in the Upper Big Branch mining disaster met to discuss new federal mine safety legislation Rockefeller is drafting.
Rockefeller said the industry needs to devote more focus needs incorporating and developing mine safety technology. Rockefeller said new technology is being developed to help detect where miners are below ground, which he said would have been helpful during the Sago Mine disaster in 2006.
“I want the coal industry to look to the future in terms of natural gas, safety and technology,” he said. “People are doing very interesting things with new technology. We didn’t think there could ever be an ability to be above ground and look through the rock and dirt to track miners.”
Melissa Clark is the widow of miner Robert E. Clark, who was killed in the UBB disaster, and said she wants mine safety legislation to address discrimination towards miners who report safety issues.
“As far as mine safety goes, anything that is done is an improvement and will save more lives,” Clark said. “We need to help protect workers from discrimination if they report safety concerns or unsafe conditions. Maybe that would have made a difference for my husband.”
Rockefeller said he agrees with providing increased protection for those who report safety violations.
“One of the most important things is protection for whistle-blowers,” Rockefeller said. “Officials with mines or unions have responsibilities when it comes to safety. The Federal Mines Act says coal companies with the help of miners are responsible for safety. It doesn’t even mention MSHA.”
Mike Sinozich, director of compliance and safety at Consol Energy, Inc., said coal companies need to make workers feel comfortable about reporting safety violations or potential safety issues.
“We call that empowering the employee and we want to empower everyone from the CEO down to the hourly worker to take action on their own if they feel it is important for safety,” Sinozich said. “The issue is some people don’t want to be empowered. Some want to do it the way they have always done it. That is the difference we are seeing between younger and older miners. Oddly enough, the older miners are hung up on their bad habits. There is a difference in how younger and older miners communicate safety issues.”
Dennis O’Dell, administrator of occupational health and safety with the United Mine Workers of America, said he feels a lot of miners still fear they will be discriminated against for reporting potential safety issues.
“There is a culture where miners are still afraid to go to work, which shouldn’t be the case in this day and age,” O’Dell said. “That is wrong. We have laws in place to protect against discrimination, but there is still fear and intimidation. I hate that this is still the case. In some aspects, we are in a new century and in some ways we are stuck in the 1920s. There has to be a culture change.”
Rockefeller said the fact that only 16 states in the country mine coal compounded with federal budget cuts means coal safety legislation is harder than ever to pass on the federal level.
“Coal in West Virginia has a bright future if we look to clean coal,” he said. “However, it is hard to get people to focus on that because of money. In Congress, we have moved into things called sequestration, financial crises and fiscal cliffs.”
Rockefeller said he did not want to introduce a new mine safety bill until it has all the provisions he feels it needs. In the meantime, Rockefeller said miners and mine officials must work together to address safety issues and incorporate new technology into safety.
“Sometimes we don’t use our imaginations enough in West Virginia,” he said. “We settle into what is rather than what could be because what could be means taking a risk. We want to make sure that mines keep mining and in order to do that we have to make mines safe. We need to develop a culture of safety that can co-exist with the culture of mining. You cannot whitewash that we have all done things inefficiently or deficiently, but we don’t have to blame each other.”
— Coil is a staff reporter for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph