Averting the Next West Virginia Mine Disaster
Rescuers were unable to continue to search for survivors at the Upper Big Branch mine (owned by Massey Energy Co) in West Virginia on Friday morning due to fire and smoke. This was the worst mine disaster in years with 25 people listed dead so far. Currently, everyone is looking for blame as well as cause for the explosion. What may be lost in the shuffle is the losses for the families left behind by the miners. Parents and spouses are gone forever. The families will be suffering tremendous financial hardship and no future lawsuit settlement could ever replace the lives.
The hope is that the miners will not have died in vain and steps will be taken to ensure that a mining disaster of any magnitude will never happen again. It was amazing to find out that the voices of the miners were ignored for months by everyone who should have been there to protect them. The local congressman, U.S. Representative Dennis Rahall, knew for two months about the concerns of the miners. MSHA (U.S. Department of Labor, Mine and Safety Health Administration) is the agency that is responsible for regulating the mining industry. MSHA ordered the mine to be closed 29 times in 2009 yet the mine continue to operate on a long term basis. The mine foreman knew about problems with ventilation for three weeks. With the current regulations, the miners don’t have any rights or influence about their working condition.
MSHA’s policy is solely about fines and enforcement. MSHA does not have a voluntary employer participation or workers involvement program unlike OSHA (which is also under the Department of Labor). If the Upper Big Branch mine had been an OSHA VPP site, according to a safety officer at a VPP compliant company, the miners would have had the authority to shut down the mine until the ventilation problem was corrected. All the miners would have been encouraged to monitor and report any safety issues that need to be corrected. The safety officials would have been actual miners who are working in the mines. These are just some of the requirements that a company under VPP regulations would have to satisfy.
Whatever the answer may be about the cause of the disaster, for the future, a voice for miners and a seat at the table should be a part of the solution. Prevention of a repeated incident should be a priority.
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