Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Miners Dying Alone

Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward is one of the best labor writers in the country. But Ward isn’t your usual labor writer; instead of spending time writing about union campaigns and labor laws, he writes about workers, more specifically coal miners and what’s killing them.

Ward’s special report in Sunday’s Gazette documents the situation in America’s coal mines – conditions that exist in many of this country’s other workplaces as well. Ward’s observations are fairly obvious to those of us who following workplace safety: Most miners die alone, in ones or twos, unreported by most newspaper, and unnoticed by most Americans. But more important is Ward’s second point: that almost all of these deaths were the result of employers ignoring safety rules..

Ward’s study begins with the story of Kentucky coal miner Bud Morris whose leg was severed in a mine accident and how he bled to death, unnoticed by the nation’s media – unlike the 12 Sago miners who died with the world watch. Ward’s point:
Bud Morris died alone, like most other coal miners killed on the job in America….Mine disasters like Sago get headlines. But far more coal miners die as Bud Morris did — alone, crushed by heavy equipment, ground up by runaway machinery, buried beneath collapsed mine roofs.


Only 13 percent of the more than 100,000 coal miners killed in the United States in the last 100 years have died in mine disasters, which regulators define as accidents causing five or more deaths.
These are the same points that I’ve often made, originally using the example of the Challenger astronauts.

But the more important point the Ward’s study makes is this:
Most of these coal miners also died for the same reason: Their employers ignored safety rules.

Almost every single one of the 320 workers killed in U.S. coal mines in the last decade didn’t have to die, according to a six-month investigation of coal mine safety in America.

Nearly nine of every 10 fatal coal-mining accidents in the last decade could have been avoided if existing regulations had been followed, according to a Sunday Gazette-Mail study of MSHA reports.
The main causes that Ward lists are mine companies’ failure to perform required safety check, properly maintain equipment, violations of roof control, mine ventilation or other required safety plans, and inadequate training.

Personally, I think the situation has changed a bit. Sago was followed closely by the Aracoma fire that killed two miners, and then the Darby explosion that killed 5. Every time another miner dies in the United States, articles appear that include the current count for the year, as well as a short paragraph recounting the company’s recent history of MSHA citations, injuries and fatalities. But unnoticed by most Americans is this fact that Ward points out:
At Sago, Aracoma and Darby, a total of 19 coal miners died. Through Oct. 31, another 24 [26 as of November 7] coal miners have died alone — more than the total death toll in 2005.

Some observers think this is more than just a bunch of coincidences:
With coal prices high, pressure is on mine managers and miners to get coal out as fast — and as cheaply — as possible. Miners and mine safety advocates worry that more miners will perish in the process.

“Safety is taking a back seat to production right now,” said Floyd Campbell, a United Mine Workers safety committee member at Foundation Coal’s Emerald Mine near Waynesburg, Pa.

James Blankenship, an Alabama coal miner and UMW representative, said, “As long as the price of coal is where it is, it’s all about production — get it out as fast as you can.
Read the entire article. It’s filled with detailed, chilling stories of mine companies making the same deadly mistakes over and over again, MSHA’s failure to assess meaningful fines, and West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin’s failure to move forward with mine safety initiatives after a lot of ambitious promises made following Sago and Aracoma.

This is only the first of several special reports that Ward is working on. Others will cover the unique dangers faced by strip-mine workers, the controversial emergency breathing devices carried by all coal miners, and the oversight record of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.