Governor orders safety ‘stand down’ at WV coal mines - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Governor orders safety ‘stand down’ at WV coal mines

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In response to a series of mine deaths in the state, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has ordered a mandatory one-hour training session at every mine in the state.

Operators will devote an hour to safety presentation over 24 hours after Tomblin announced the stand down at 1 p.m. Wednesday. The governor said he asked state mine safety officials to devote every available inspector and supervisor to inspect each of the state's underground and surface mines also.

"West Virginia's coal mining industry can thrive only if mining operations are conducted as safely as possible and in accordance with the mandatory health and safety laws and regulations aimed at preventing accidents," Tomblin said. "I'm asking all coal companies and their employees to take this safety check seriously. We need to do everything we can to ensure all of our coal miners are safe."

The executive order from Tomblin was prompted by the fourth coal miner death in two weeks in West Virginia. That man died in Raleigh County Tuesday when he was killed by an underground scoop.

Inspectors were there before it happened giving safety training.

"Our inspectors were instructed to talk about the fact that we've had four fatalities in 14 days, which is very alarming," said Eugene White, director of the Office of Miners Safety Health and Training. "Two, our inspection staff and our agents are talking about best practices and communication."

White said they would also be reminding coal miners of the safety hotline.

Tomblin said this would remind coal workers of the dangerous conditions they face every day in the mines.

"I think we all recognize that when you work, especially underground, you work in close quarters," Tomblin said. "You've got to be at the top of your game at all times."

Del. Mike Caputo, majority whip and United Mine Workers of America representative, commended the governor's order to reinforce safety in the minds of coal employees.

"We've lost too many miners in this state," Caputo said. "We need to practice safety meetings as much as necessary. This has to stop."

The state inspects about 500 coal mines. Currently, each mine is required to be inspected quarterly.

Chris Hamilton and Bill Raney of the West Virginia Coal Association said the industry is behind the order.

"We share the governor's concern over this rash of most recent mining accidents and fatalities," Hamilton said. "We have pledged our full support, resources to work with the executive and legislature and director White in being part of the solution here."

Raney said this will "refocus" everyone on safety, something he said the industry already does frequently.

"When you bring statewide attention to it, I think it brings a different perspective," Raney said.

Raney said despite the rash of accidents, he believes the deaths are all coincidental and not the result of any sort of decreased efforts toward safety.

"Think about the thousands each day that go home safely from their shift," Raney said. "We don't hear about them, you don't pay attention to them because there's no story there. … The industry mourns when any of these things happen and we pay very close attention when these kinds of incidents, even accidents, we try to learn from and each unique situation and take the action necessary."

White said until the investigations of the recent mining deaths are completed, it's not clear if the deaths were preventable or could have been averted with different inspection efforts.

"One of my goals when I got the job was to have zero fatalities," White said.

White recently testified at a legislative hearing on some of the challenges facing the agency, one focus being retention of employees.  

"What a lot of people don't understand is that we as an inspection agency, a training agency, when one of these fatalities occur we hurt just as bad as the victims spouses, relatives, coworkers," White said. "Coal miners are a big family and we just need to get everybody together, sit down and try to figure out what's going on, what's causing some of these things and if they are preventable. If they can be prevented, we will."