Grim trend in fatal injuries to U.S. coal miners

The first six months of the Trump administration has been particularly deadly for coal miners. Nine workers at U.S. coal mines have been fatally injured in the first six months of 2017. Five of the nine deaths occurred in West Virginia. In all of 2016, eight workers were killed on the job at U.S. coal mines.

Some might want to attribute the increased number of coal mine deaths to President Trump’s anti-regulatory agenda and more business friendly policies particularly for the coal industry. I don’t know that to be the case. As far as I know, there are not any Trump officials micromanaging the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspection activities. Many long-time, experienced MSHA employees remain in senior positions at the agency.

In response to the spate of deaths, MSHA announced a special outreach initiative directed at the injury risk of less-experienced miners.

“Of the eight coal mining fatalities so far in 2017, seven involved miners with one year or less experience at the mine, and six involved miners with one year or less experience on the job.”

The agency says that inspectors and safety training specialists will talk to and observe work practices of less experienced miners to:

  • evaluate the effectiveness of the mine operator’s new miner and experienced miner training program;
  • evaluate the effectiveness of the mine operator’s task training program;
  • identify deficiencies and offer suggestions for training; and
  • work with mine operators to improve their training programs.

But Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers (UMWA), is not pleased with this MSHA response. The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward, Jr. tipped me off to this statement from Roberts:

“I note that the Mine Safety and Health Administration has instituted a ‘compliance assistance’ program to address this. The UMWA is not and never has been in favor of so-called ‘compliance assistance’ programs, and this one is no different. MSHA is giving the operators leeway to select who can participate in this program and who cannot.

To be effective, MSHA’s program must be training everyone receives. And, despite our 127-year history of dealing with mine safety issues and developing solutions to those issues, MSHA failed to reach out to us at all with respect to developing this program.”

I can understand the UMWA’s disdain for MSHA’s “Training Assistance Initiative,” especially being left out of the loop on its design. Afterall, at least three of the coal miners who’ve died this year were UMWA members. But MSHA’s enforcement activities continue, including enhanced enforcement such as the “impact inspections” program. It was put in place following the Upper Big Branch mine disaster to give extra safety scrutiny to mining operations with a history of serious violations. What I don’t want to see—and perhaps the UMWA’s Cecil Roberts is forewarning—is an easing of mine safety enforcement.

The following are the names (and links to the death notices) of the nine coal miners:

In West Virginia:

In Kentucky:

In Montana: Michael Ramsey, 62

In Alabama: Marius Shepherd, 33

R.I.P.