It has been just over a year since the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia killed 29 miners, and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has come out with proposed coal mining safety rule revisions. The proposal is intended to ensure that underground coal mine operators find and fix violations of mandatory health or safety standards, with an overall goal of improving miner health and safety.
This comes as MSHA releases the findings from its yearlong investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. MSHA assistant secretary Joseph A. Main did not mince words when he summarized his agency’s conclusions: “The tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine was entirely preventable, and basic safety practices were not followed by Massey Energy.”
In a recently released report from another source, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel’s (GIIP), investigators determined that the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine was man-made and could have been prevented had Massey Energy followed basic, well-tested and historically proven safety procedures. Specifically, the GIIP concluded that the Upper Big Branch mine explosion occurred due to Massey’s failure to:
- provide a properly functioning ventilation system;
- adhere to federal and state rock dusting standards;
- record or correct safety hazards in pre-shift/on-shift examinations; and
- properly maintain equipment at the mine, including the longwall shearer where the explosion originated.
The GIIP report also called out Massey for intimidating miners to keep them from speaking out about safety issues. Congressional testimony from Massey miners revealed that the company hid violations from government agencies in violation of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. MSHA has announced that some information will remain confidential due to ongoing investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal criminal prosecutors.
Latest Mine Safety Inspections Pay Dividends
United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts supports the motivation behind the new coal mining safety rules proposed by MSHA: “In the wake of [the GIIP] report, I don’t know how anyone can argue against not just protecting basic rights at work for coal miners but expanding them.” The UMWA has been vocal in its support of enhanced federal safety inspection processes.
MSHA just announced in May that its inspectors issued 125 citations and 36 compliance orders during special impact inspections conducted this spring at eight coal mines. All of these mines had received increased agency attention and enforcement in the aftermath of Upper Big Branch due to high numbers of violations, a high rate of hazard complaints, inadequate ventilation, and high numbers of accidents, injuries, illnesses, or fatalities. One persistent problem is illegally gaining advance notification of inspections so that chronic safety problems can be temporarily addressed or hidden.
Protecting Injured West Virginia Mine Workers
Safety violations are powerful evidence of a company’s negligence and legal liability in mining accident litigation. Coal industry officials who cut corners to boost profits introduce extra risks into an already dangerous job. Miners’ lives are needlessly put at risk when the concern for production outweighs the concern for miner safety. Death, traumatic brain injury, paralysis, crushed limbs, amputations, burns and other serious harm can result in an instant if something goes wrong.
A West Virginia coal mining injury lawyer can help an injured miner or surviving family members assess their legal options in the aftermath of a mining injury or coal truck accident. When regulatory systems fail to keep the workplace safe, a civil lawsuit may be an injury victim’s only way to hold coal companies accountable.