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MSHA targets mine violations that lead to deaths

Read more in Coal Tattoo

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Obama administration mine safety regulators this week formally kicked off a new program to target the types of violations most frequently linked to mining deaths.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's "Rules to Live By" campaign is starting with educational and training efforts, but will next month move toward targeted enforcement and increased penalties.

"This is as much a training and education issue as it is an enforcement issue," said Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for MSHA.

Main and other MSHA officials visited Charleston on Friday for the second of two events to launch the program. The other was Thursday in Austin, Texas.

MSHA officials analyzed 589 deaths in coal and non-coal mines between 2000 and 2008. They came up with a list of 11 coal and 13 non-coal rules that were most frequently cited by investigators looking into those deaths.

In the coal industry, the list includes roof control violations, electrical problems, poorly maintained haul roads and unsafe machinery. Nearly half of the 300 coal-mining deaths between 2000 and 2008 resulted at least in part from such violations, MSHA officials said.

Over the long term, coal-mining deaths in the United States have dropped from hundreds every year as recently as the 1960s to an average of 32 annually over the last decade. But mine safety took on a renewed focus following a series of disasters in 2006 and 2007 after the Bush administration made major cuts in MSHA staffing, budget and enforcement.

President Obama appointed Main, a longtime United Mine Workers safety director, to run MSHA and Main has promised his goal is to eliminate all mining deaths.

Last year, Main announced a campaign to end black lung disease, but at the same time backed off a previous MSHA promise to tighten legal limits on exposure to coal dust that causes the deadly disease.

Last year, the coal-mining industry set a new record low with 18 deaths nationwide.

At Friday's event, Main noted that in 2008, there were just seven workers killed in underground mines in the U.S., half the previous low. And, the industry went eight months without any underground mining deaths, Main said.

"If we can do eight months, we can do the other four," Main said.

Now, MSHA is distributing information about its priority list of safety rules to the industry and working on educational and training efforts.

Greg Wagner, Main's top deputy for policy, said that starting on March 15, MSHA inspectors would focus "increased scrutiny" on violations of those rules. Inspectors will also carefully examine violations and consider whether they deserve increased monetary penalties.

Industry, labor and government officials attending Friday's event voiced their approval for the MSHA program.

"Safety is something we need to take care of first," said Joe Carter, an international UMW vice president from Charleston-based District 17.

Carter said a poor safety record "hurts the reputation of the coal industry, and we could use a little help right now."

Kenny Murray, a former MSHA official who is now vice president for operations at Alliance Coal, said safety problems allow the coal industry to "come under attack by the media" and helps others to "paint us as being evil."

The last speaker at Friday's event, Jill McIntyre, told the crowd about her father, Mark McIntyre, who was killed on Dec. 29, 2008, in an accident at a CONSOL Energy barge facility near Moundsville.

McIntyre, 58, fell into the Ohio River and drowned while he was checking for accumulations of standing water in the cargo areas of barges at CONSOL's Ireland Loadout facility. MSHA cited the company for not training preparation plant workers, such as McIntyre, on the specific safety hazards of working on the river loadout. The incident also prompted the state to write new barge facility safety rules.

"I'm here to remind you, to implore you, to do whatever you reasonably can to keep another family, your family, from losing a miner on the job," Jill McIntyre said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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