Monday, May 29, 2006

Is Fatigue Contributing to Miners' Deaths?

The record high price of coal is encouraging mine companies to drive miners to work overtime, according to this AP article. And resulting fatigue may be a contributing factor in the 31 coal mining deaths this year.
With coal prices at record highs, mining companies have been pushing to increase production, adding overnight and weekend shifts and generating more overtime hours for miners who have some of the most physically grueling jobs in the country.

Industry groups and mine regulatory agencies are wondering if fatigue could be a common factor in the sharp increase in coal mining deaths this year.


"It is something that needs to be looked at," said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. "If we're cranking out more production with the same number of employees, miners may be working six or seven days a week, instead of five, and potentially not getting enough rest."

Companies went in search of experienced miners about three years ago when prices for Appalachian coal skyrocketed. The region's coal is now selling for as much as $64 a ton on the spot market, a threefold increase in three years.
Mining is hard, dangerous work, and some miners are working significant amounts of overtime. Carlos Cracraft, a labor market analyst in the Kentucky Department for Workforce Development said that:
The miners, who earn an average $18.35 an hour, are working an average of 49.5 hours a week in Kentucky. That, he said, suggests that while some may have a typical 40-hour work week, others may be on the job for 60 hours or more.

The work is far from easy, said James Jarrett, 43, of DeBord in eastern Kentucky.

"I would say this is about one of the toughest jobs in the country," he said. "Ain't nobody else ever been where we've been, with a mountain over top of them. About every mine is working six days a week. I may get 60 to 70 hours a week, or I may go home in 48."

Still, most miners are glad to get the overtime pay, Jarrett said.

Joe Main, a mine safety consultant and former safety director for the United Mine Workers of America, said industry representatives and regulators should look at overtime when considering ways to improve safety.

Coal operators are so focused on the bottom line that they're using overtime instead of hiring additional workers, Main said.
Last October, the Appalachian News Express released a memo from Massey Energy president Don Blankenship that told all of the company's deep mine superintendents to focus only on coal production:
If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e. - build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills.
A week later Massey sent out another memo saying "nevermind," safety is really the first priority. Really.