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Sago report urges giving safety workers mine power

BUCKHANNON — Peggy Cohen had not had time to read every word of Davitt McAteer’s 97-page report on the Sago Mine disaster.

But just a quick glance told Cohen most of what she needed to know.

“I am angry and I am upset,” said Cohen, the daughter of Sago miner Fred Ware Jr. “The system completely failed my father.”

Cohen and other families have criticized McAteer’s report for not pinpointing the cause of the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 Sago miners. They have pushed Gov. Joe Manchin, demanding an immediate promise to implement McAteer’s many recommendations.

In doing so, the families say that their goal is simple.

“I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I have gone through,” said Amber Helms, who lost her father, Terry Helms, at Sago.

If that goal is to be reached, mine safety advocates may have to go beyond recommendations about self-contained self-rescue devices and underground mine seals. According to McAteer’s report, the basic issues are much deeper than ways to stop explosions or help miners escape from them.

McAteer urges Manchin to force the coal industry to “put safety on a par with production, by expecting every mining company to employ adequate numbers of safety and health personnel reporting directly to top management and authorized to overrule production demands when inconsistent with safety practices.”

In a report prepared for McAteer, a group of West Virginia Wesleyan College faculty and students noted that mine explosions and fires have become a rare occurrence.

“While explosions with entrapment of multiple miners attract media and subsequent national attention to safety in coal mining, the single deaths, occurring one at a time, constitute the bulk of the fatalities over the past decade,” the Wesleyan report said.

Explosions account for just 7 percent of U.S. mining deaths between 1995 and 2005, the report said. Over the same period, deaths involving mine haulage equipment, roof falls, electrical accidents and machinery accidents accounted for more than 82 percent of U.S. coal-mining deaths.

Between 1995 and 2005, West Virginia tied Kentucky for the most coal-mining deaths, with 106.

Working with McAteer, Wesleyan professors Kathleen Long and Robert Rupp designed a course where students would study recent mining accidents and look for trends.

When they examined U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration reports, the Wesleyan team found that 28.5 percent of them were missing any data about any violations found by MSHA inspectors.

In 16 percent of the deaths, the team found, MSHA issued no citations.

“With so much missing data, any speculation about possible patterns is tentative,” the Wesleyan report said.

“Nonetheless, the fact that only sixteen percent of the fatal coal mine accidents had no violations indicates that there is a problem with safety enforcement and follow through in America’s coal mines,” the report said. “Prevention of accidents through code enforcement does not appear to be a priority for either MSHA or the coal-mining industry.”

The Wesleyan team found that 129 of 361 deaths they studied could be attributed to the “action of an individual miner.”

In 142 cases, the team found, deaths could be attributed to the actions of a supervisor, the action of a miner and a supervisor, or “operator/management malfeasance.”

“Root causes live at both ends of the employment hierarchy — with the action of the miner and close behind the action or inaction of mine management,” the Wesleyan report said.

Also, the Wesleyan team found that MSHA accident reports “do not have a consistent format, nor do they contain consistent information.

“The reader of a report does not know whether the information was left out by the investigator who wrote the report or the information was not obtained or discovered during the actual investigation,” the report says. “A lack of a particular format limits comparisons across reports and restricts potential learning for future mining safety.”

In another report prepared for McAteer, West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley and Morgantown lawyer Suzanne Weise describe the “duty of care” concept adopted in Australia for hazardous waste and off-shore oil industries, and being considered for that nation’s mining industry.

“Duty of care requires employers, employees and others who may have an influence on hazards in a workplace to do everything ‘reasonably practicable’ to protect the health and safety of workers,” McGinley and Weise explained.

Under this concept, mine owners can meet their “duty of care” at the lowest cost if they wish. But if an accident occurs, they must show that it was not reasonably practical to do more than they did to prevent such an accident.

McGinley and Weise do not propose that the U.S. adopt such an approach, but say that studying it could help to resolve many mine safety issues that get bogged down in rulemaking battles among industry, government and miners.

To follow up on that, McAteer in his report outlined a list of broad recommendations that go beyond specific responses to the failures that caused the Sago disaster. Among them:

s Make risk assessment the top priority in planning, developing and managing mines. Safety and health protection must be systematically engineered into all mining activities.

s Involve miners in all aspects of safety and health planning, design, management and enforcement as a basic requirement, not an afterthought.

s Build safety protection into all equipment design, from improving visibility and proximity protection to providing storage compartments for personal safety equipment, such as deploying safety equipment in longwall-mining machines.

s Reject “business as usual attitudes.” When a carbon monoxide alarm goes off, the response should not be simply to “have someone check it out when they have time.” Safety protection must be the first order of business every day, not the last.

“For a variety of reasons, some in the coal mining industry have never seen fit to put safety on par with production,” the McAteer report concluded. “That must change — and we believe it is changing.

“All that is needed now is the will to accelerate the momentum for change that began building in the dark hours after the outcome of the Sago disaster, when the governor of West Virginia pledged that the miners lost in that disaster would not be forgotten in the way that so many thousands of miners lost in the past have been forgotten.”

The McAteer report is available online at www.wvgov.org/SagoMineDisasterJuly2006FINAL.pdfc. The Wesleyan study, along with other documents used by McAteer’s team, is available through the Web site of Wheeling Jesuit University, where McAteer is a vice president. See www.wju.edu/Admissions/rd/?SAGO-.

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continuing coverage of the Sago Mine disaster is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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