Dismissing a widow’s plea, just another reason to dislike the coal industry

Steven O’Dell, 27, went to work on November 30, 2012 for his “hoot owl” shift at Alpha Natural Resources’ Pocahontas Coal Mine.  He never came home.  O’Dell was fatally crushed between two pieces of mobile mining equipment.   Three weeks after his death, his wife Caitlin gave birth to their son Andrew.

The young widow wants to make sure that another miner’s family doesn’t have to suffer the pain and grief that she’s endured.   As reported by The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward, Jr. Caitlin O’Dell spoke last week before the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety, urging them to require mine operators to install “proximity detection” devices on mobile equipment.   The devices can be programmed to give warning signals or shut down mobile equipment when it gets too close to workers.   Had such a device been installed in the equipment around which Steve O’Dell had been working, his life could have been saved.   At least four proximity detection systems specifically designed for underground mining equipment are commercially available.

Quoting from the Gazette’s story, Caitlin O’Dell told board members:

"I'm here to ask you to stop history from repeating itself.  You have an opportunity today to change history for the next family. It's too late for mine. “

The Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety is authorized by a West Virginia state law, and meets at least monthly.  Its primary responsibility is reviewing existing regulations and promulgating new rules to enhance health and safety for the state’s coal miners.  Three members of the board are appointed to “represent the viewpoint of those [mine] operators in this state" and three members "represent the viewpoint of the working mines in this state.”  Currently, the three labor representatives are with the United Mine Workers and the three industry appointees are with Arch Coal, Patriot Coal and the West Virginia Coal Association.

Ken Ward, Jr. described what happened after the young widow made her case to the Board.

“Board members expressed their sympathies to Mrs. O'Dell. They admired her 9-month-old son, and they thanked her for coming to ‘put a face’ on the issue.  Then, the board's three industry representatives voted to block two different motions from their United Mine Workers counterparts to move forward with ‘proximity detection’ rules.”

"Board member Chris Hamilton, a West Virginia Coal Association vice president, said the matter needs further study and discussion.”

The three labor representatives voted down Hamilton's proposal to conduct meetings around West Virginia to discuss the devices, as well as alternatives to them, such as reflective clothing and strobe lights.  The coal industry's excuse that more study is needed on the devices---devices that are already commercially available---is just another reason the public has little respect for the coal industry.

As Ward noted, with an equally divided Board, inaction continues by the State to require proximity detection devices.  He also reminds us that federal action on this life-saving equipment is also stalled.

In August 2011, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in the Department of Labor published a proposal to require proximity detection devices.  The agency indicated that coal miners face a “grave danger” and that these devices would prevent fatal injuries.  The agency, however, has yet to finalize that rule.

Mine worker in the U.S. continue to die on-the-job after being struck by mobile equipment. Earlier this year, John Myles, 44, was killed this way at the Affinity Mine in West Virginia.  So to was Nathanial Clarida, 35, at a Peabody Energy mine in Illinois.

Following MSHA’s investigation of the fatality at the Affinity Mine, the operator installed proximity detection devices on two pieces of mobile coal mining equipment.  For John Myles and his family, that's too little too late.

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