CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia officials have never acted on a five-year-old recommendation to adopt a rule that could end one of the most common type of coal-mining accidents: being crushed by a piece of underground equipment.
In September 2008, a team of state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training inspectors recommended the state require all underground mine operators to install "proximity detection" systems to shut off mining equipment when it gets too close to workers.
Officials have never adopted such a rule. Some mine operators are adding the systems on their own. State inspectors sometimes mandate proximity detection equipment as an additional safety measure -- but only after miners are killed.
"It's a shame we have to wait until we have a fatality," said state mine safety director Eugene White, "but that's the only avenue we have to require them."
Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners died and 220 were injured nationwide when they became crushed, pinned or struck by continuous mining machines underground. Mine safety experts say these deaths and injuries could be prevented if mine operators installed proximity detection devices.
On the federal level, two separate U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rules to require proximity detection systems remain stalled, one at MSHA and the other at the White House.
MSHA chief Joe Main has touted the fact that some mine operators -- led by CONSOL Energy and Alliance Coal -- are installing proximity detectors without a legal mandate to do so. But the voluntary measures cover only about one-fourth of the continuous mining machines in use around the country, according to MSHA.
In West Virginia, state mine safety officials at one point planned to move to require proximity detection systems ahead of any federal mandate.
Back in June 2008, the state's Mine Safety Technology Task Force planned to have a draft regulation ready by January 2009 so it could become effective by June 2009, according to meeting minutes and other records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
"The task force would like to come up with a regulation before federal requirements are proposed on proximity devices," said the minutes, from a June 18-19 meeting in Charleston.
Three months later, in a Sept. 7, 2008, memo, four top state mine inspectors recommended specific language that would have given mine operators a year to install proximity detection systems.
"It is our belief that the use of a device, such as the proximity warning system, will be necessary if we are to ever eliminate injuries of this type," the memo said.