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Mine safety

SUNDAY’S paper told of the death of Bud Morris, a coal miner whose leg was cut off and whose knee was crushed when he was hit by an underground coal car. Simple tourniquets might have saved Morris’ life, if not his legs, but mine employees who were supposed to deliver first aid were never trained in that role.

Another violation added to his death: Safety rules limit the height of coal cars and their piled-up contents to create better underground visibility and help avoid accidents such as this one, but the car that hit Morris had been fitted with high sideboards to hold more coal. Unfortunately, the height made Morris invisible to a co-worker running the vehicle.

Altogether, 320 workers died in U.S. coal mines during the last decade. West Virginia’s Sago tragedy caught national attention, but mostly, miners die one or two at a time in roof falls, or crushed by haulers, or pulled into conveyor belts, or electrocuted or pinned by equipment.

After months of analysis, Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. concluded that almost all the deaths in the last decade might have been prevented if mine owners had followed existing safety laws. Among transgressions:

s Mine operators did not adequately perform safety checks before sending people to work.

s Equipment was not maintained in safe working condition.

s Operators did not maintain proper roof supports or ventilation.

s Miners were inadequately trained.

Last week, the state’s report on the Aracoma Coal Co. fire that killed Don Bragg and Ellery Elvis Hatfied in January said the conveyor belt that started the fire had numerous problems that workers had pointed out beforehand. The mine had a reversed air-flow system and a missing wall that allowed smoke to be drawn to the workers’ location. Fire-extinguishing sprinklers were disabled. When workers ran to get a hose to put out the fire, they found that its couplings did not fit the water outlet.

Richard Stickler, President Bush’s new director of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, has told us that the federal agency has powerful tools at its disposal to enforce safety laws — tools that it hasn’t used in the past. Operators who knowingly fail to comply can be shut down, he said. By using these tools, Stickler said, MSHA can get the attention of the few bad operators and force them to straighten up. We hope he is right, and that his strategy pays off.

Fifty or 100 years ago, mine disasters claimed hundreds of lives at a time. After each tragedy, leaders vowed to never let it happen again. They passed safety laws to make the hazardous work safer.

To a great degree, they have been successful. Coal companies today mine much more coal with fewer deaths (and fewer workers). In 1981, a recent peak for deaths, 6.1 miners died for every 10,000 miners. In 2005, the safest year on record, there were just 1.9 deaths for every 10,000 miners.

Hidden within that otherwise positive trend is an ugly truth. Miners are still being lost because lessons learned from past disasters are not put into practice.

The coal industry has reason to be proud of its falling death rate and rising production. Think what coal operators could achieve if more of them followed the rules.


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