The West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training says that of several reasons coal mine injury rates have increased in recent years, none are "worthier of noting" than the opioid epidemic.
The West Virginia legislative auditor's office, which regularly reviews the job performance of state agencies, recently looked at the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. In a September audit, the auditors wrote that while the coal mine injury rate declined throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, it began increasing in 2013.
Of 26 coal-producing states from 2000 to 2017, West Virginia had the eighth highest injury rate, at 5.18 per 200,000 work hours, according to the audit. Since 2013, West Virginia’s underground mine injury rate averaged 6.0 injuries per 200,000 work hours while Kentucky and Pennsylvania, surrounding states with lower but similar coal production rates, averaged 5.5 and 5.0, respectively.
In its response, the Office of Miners' Health, Safety, and Training said that coal miner injuries have increased for the following reasons:
- Substance abuse problems, tied to the opioid epidemic
- Coal miners are afraid of losing their jobs as work has slowed, so they take more risks
- An older workforce “trying to do more, and physically not able”
- Tougher mining conditions in West Virginia compared to other underground coal producing states
- Companies filing bankruptcy
Greg Norman, director of the office, wrote in a response that since January of 2013, the office has received over 1,500 failed drug screenings. He noted that while underground mining poses many challenges to someone "alert and in full control of their senses, it is a situation where someone who is high on drugs or alcohol (poses) a terrible danger to not only themselves but their co-workers as well."
“There are many reasons to consider why the injury rates have increased but none worthier of noting than the opioid epidemic," he wrote.
In their audit, legislative auditors wrote that while the office had offered them potential reasons for the increased injury rate, it should be able to provide evidence. They did not argue that the office is wrong, but only that it needs to be able to back up its assertions with data.
Auditors conducted their own analysis of MSHA accident reports, which exclude the work of independent contractors, and found that miners were often overexerting themselves. They found that overexertion contributed to injuries handling materials, such as loading cinder blocks or pulling rope, as well as slips and falls.
Also in the audit, legislative auditors looked at whether the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, since it has similar functions as the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration, should continue to exist.
They determined the office should continue to function, noting that West Virginia laws can differ from federal regulations, that West Virginia regulators have local coal mining experience, and that the state can move faster to implement regulations than the federal government.
They added that "West Virginia has a history of largescale mining disasters in which many miners lost their lives" and that continuing the office "will likely help prevent future disasters and minimize the loss of life in mining operations."
The West Virginia Coal Association thinks that the office should reduce the number of safety inspectors, but agreed that the office should continue to exist, according to the audit. The United Mine Workers of America also agreed the office should continue.
Legislative auditors presented their findings to a joint meeting of the committees on government organization and government operations earlier this week.
Greg Norman, the director of the office, told the committee that the office keeps data on coal mine accidents. The legislative auditors office argues that the office also needs to be able to draw conclusions from that data and “state categorically” the cause of the increase.
Following the meeting, both a Republican and Democrat member of the committee said they don’t sense a desire to end the agency in the Legislature, despite Delegate Dianna Graves’ questioning of its efficacy in committee.
"It’d be one heck of a fight," said Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, minority whip and a UMWA official. "We have more laws for a reason. West Virginia mines have killed more miners than any state in the country."
Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh and a former coal miner, said he also didn't sense support.
Later, Aaron Allred, legislative auditor, said that auditors had chosen the mine safety office to audit only because state law requires them to do so periodically.
During the committee meeting, Graves, R- Kanawha, said she was “baffled” by the auditors’ recommendation that the agency continues to exist if it is duplicating functions.
Noah Browning, senior research analyst with the auditor's office, told her that the agency had helped injury rates decline since its inception, and that West Virginia’s injury rates likely appear higher than some states because of underreporting in states without state inspectors.
Norman, the director of the office, also noted that West Virginia inspectors have local mining experience, described how some West Virginia regulations are stronger than federal law, and addressed what would happen if the office closed.
“Being a mine rescuer and dealing with different mine disasters I just know in my heart …. there’d be more fatalities,” he said.
A spokesman for the governor's office did not respond to an inquiry Wednesday about efforts to prevent further mining deaths and injuries in West Virginia. West Virginia had more coal mining fatalities than any other state in 2017 and continues to in 2018, according to MSHA.
There were eight mining deaths in West Virginia in 2017, and three have occurred in 2018. Eight in 2017 was the most since 2010, when there were 35, including 29 miners killed at Upper Big Branch in Raleigh County.
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