Four mining fatalities within two weeks in West Virginia prompted Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to call for a safety stand down last week so that mine operators could review safety practices. The order signed by Tomblin required mines to stop operations for at least one hour on Wednesday afternoon.
West Virginia’s Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training sent inspectors through all coal mines to assist with the stand down. "We are working statewide with mining industry officials to ensure we are taking all necessary precautions," said Tomblin.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) sent inspectors to West Virginia to help with the stand down by conducting safety talks and disseminating information. MSHA chief Joseph Main said his agency would be “armed with detailed handouts and will talk directly to mine operators and miners, reminding them about the critical need for safe work practices.”
West Virginia has had six coal-mining deaths since November, despite what Tomblin called a "comprehensive" mine safety bill that went into effect last June. Of the four most recent deaths in West Virginia, two occurred at a Ukrainian-owned mine recently cited for 65 safety violations. The mine was fined $125,000 last year for safety violations.
A death last week involved a miner who was run over by an underground mining "scoop" vehicle – something that safety experts say could have prevented by a rule that was proposed two years ago by the MSHA but has not yet been adopted. The rule would require the installation of sensors on underground equipment known as the "continuous miner," which have spinning drums that dig deep into coal seams. The sensors shut down the machine when workers are detected nearby, preventing them from being run over.
Tomblin has found himself on the hot seat recently for mistakes and delays involving in the implementation of tougher methane monitoring requirements, improved coal-dust control standards, and tougher penalties ordered by lawmakers as part of last year's legislation.
Critics called the stand down a publicity stunt. Former MSHA head Davitt McAteer said regulators need to force mine operators to make safety a priority.
"You've got to put the fear of God in them," McAteer said.