By Vicki Smith
OAK HILL —
Safety talks that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin urged for more than 500 West Virginia coal operations after a string of deaths should be completed within days, the state’s top mine safety official says.
A total of 85 safety instructors, inspectors, supervisors, mine-rescue coordinators and administrators at the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training should finish their visits at underground mines this weekend, agency Director Eugene White said. But it will likely take until midweek to wrap up with surface mines and preparation plants.
The goal is to reach every miner in the state, regardless of which shift they work.
White said he fully supported Tomblin’s call for the “stand-down” — when operations halt production for an hour to discuss mine safety — after the state’s fourth mining-related fatality in a two-week period.
Since November, six miners have died on the job in West Virginia.
“We had to do something,” said White, who took over the state regulatory agency in January.
White visited Newtown Energy’s Rachel Peerless mine in Boone County, meeting with the day shift, which was brought out early, and the evening shift, before they went underground Wednesday.
“Everybody was concerned,” White said, adding that while the miners had heard about some fatalities, few realized that four men had been lost in just 14 days.
Critics call such timeouts for safety publicity stunts, but White says they’re necessary because “over time, people forget.”
“When we quit communicating and talking with the companies and the miners,” he said, “we’ll lose altogether.”
“Sitting and talking does work. Yes, enforcement is part of our job, and we’re going to do that,” he said, but safety starts with the miners themselves.
“We can’t babysit them. We can’t be there with them every minute of the day,” White said. “They’re a unique group of individuals. They’re a close-knit group of individuals. These guys know their co-workers better than their immediate family.”
White said he told workers to watch one another closely and to be alert if someone seems upset or distracted.
Stand-downs are not uncommon in West Virginia.
In April 2010, after an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 men, former Gov. Joe Manchin issued an executive order calling for a similar timeout. He also urged one in 2006, after another string of fatal accidents.
The latest was prompted by the death of John Myles, 44, a shuttle car operator from Hilltop who was struck by a scoop Tuesday night at Pocahontas Coal Co.’s Affinity mine near Sophia. Myles was shoveling as the scoop operator gathered the coal up, White said, but the scoop reversed directions, striking and crushing the victim.
It was the second fatal accident at that mine this month, and state inspectors had been onsite giving safety talks shortly before Myles’ death.
Edward Finney, 43, of Bluefield, Va., died at Affinity on Feb. 7 after a hoist moved unexpectedly as he was pushing a scoop bucket insert full of trash onto it. The preliminary investigation suggests the hoist picked up the scoop and trapped Finney underneath.
The mine remains closed. White said regulators are allowing only water pumping and firebossing, or the inspections done before every shift to ensure to identify and correct hazards.
Federal records show that Affinity has been cited for safety violations 65 times since January, for everything from failure to maintain mine and escapeway maps to allowing combustible materials to accumulate. White said he’s still gathering state inspection records, which aren’t immediately submitted to the regional office.
Pocahontas Coal is a subsidiary of Tennessee-based United Coal Co., which is controlled by Ukraine-based Metinvest. The company this week called the two deaths devastating and said it’s working with state and federal investigators.
In March 2012, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration listed the Affinity mine among three that had been caught giving illegal advance warning that inspectors were onsite.
MSHA has repeatedly said such warnings let workers hide dangerous conditions, and Director Joe Main has pushed for higher penalties and fines to deter the practice. So far, though, Congress has yet to act.
The United Mine Workers of America supports both tougher penalties and the kind of safety talks West Virginia is holding.
“We don’t see it as an either-or,” spokesman Phil Smith said. “Our experience is that it’s good any time to reinforce a culture of safety at the workplace.
“It’s also critical for penalties to fit the crime,” he added. “If your or my life was put at risk on the street by someone who knew the law but chose to ignore it, that person would face some pretty severe penalties, including jail time. It should be no different at the workplace.”
But White says it’s too soon to say whether he’d recommend tougher state penalties for violations because the recent accidents remain under investigation.
“Until I know for sure what the main contributing factors were that caused these accidents, I would be hesitant to make any recommendations,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out why what happened, happened.”