Federal mine safety officials said Thursday they are launching a voluntary training initiative in response to a recent string of coal-mining deaths, including four in West Virginia.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration announced the program during a meeting at the agency’s training academy outside of Beckley, and it assured company officials that the plan isn’t intended as an enforcement effort.
“This is not an inspection,” said Tim Watkins, MSHA’s deputy administrator for coal mine safety and health. “It’s not an investigation. It’s simply, we’re reaching out to the operators with this initiative.”
Watkins said MSHA will start next week to contact mine operators to see if they want to take part in the training effort, aimed at reaching out to less-experienced miners and workers who might have recently moved to a different mine or switched to a different type of job.
MSHA officials hope to talk with miners who fit that profile, and, if any training “deficiencies” are found, then “sit down with mine operators and discuss anything that may be an issue.” MSHA hopes to work with mine operators to improve training programs, Watkins said.
“It’s not something that we’re going to go out and just beat these people over the head,” Watkins said.
Watkins noted that the United States already has had seven coal-mining deaths in 2017, just shy of the eight fatalities that occurred in the coalfields nationwide last year.
“Eight was an historic low,” Watkins said. “To get it down below double digits was quite an accomplishment on everyone’s part, especially the industry.”
Four of this year’s coal deaths occurred in West Virginia, two in Kentucky and one in Montana.
This year, MSHA officials are concerned not just with the number of coal-mining deaths, but also with the fact that most of the deaths involved miners who were new to the particular operation where they were killed or relatively new to the specific job they were performing.
Six of the seven deaths this year involved miners with less than one year of experience at the mine in question and five involved miners with less than a year in the specific job. Three deaths each occurred at surface mines and underground mines, and one occurred at a preparation plant. Four involved powered haulage, one was a person falling, another a fall of the mine face and another a roof fall.
“It didn’t take long before the one year of experience, the change in mines, jumped out at us,” Watkins said.
Watkins acknowledged that the fatalities didn’t necessarily involve inexperienced miners. MSHA documents show that miners killed so far this year had a minimum of six years of mining experience. The issue that caught MSHA’s attention was more about how long they had been working at a particular mine or in a particular job.
“They changed jobs,” Watkins said. “With the market the way it is, people are moving around. People are doing different jobs.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.