Sarah Ghiz Korwan, Esq.
WV Legislator Proposes Major Change to Mine Safety Laws, Fails
A common expression in the mining community is that mine safety laws are written in blood. This belief propounded by opponents likely tamped down an attempt by lawmakers, supported by industry, in West Virginia to overhaul the State Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.
Under the proposed legislation, mandatory mine inspections would be converted into “visits” and the provision allowing inspectors to visit without advance notice would be removed. In addition, the requirement that governor nominees have experience in “health and safety” would also be eliminated. Further, the bill converted “orders” into “recommendations”.
Essentially, the agency would be model for mine safety training and education, not an enforcement agency, and would make visits to find potential safety hazards and provide recommendations to change. The intended goal of the legislation was to shift “the focus of inspectors more toward training than enforcement”, according to Del. Adam Burkhammer, a contractor with the West Virginia Miners’ Health and Safety Program and a proponent of the legislation.
Backed by the UMWA, a small army of coal miners showed up to oppose the and speak out against the proposed legislation. They reminded legislators that safety laws were written because of prior failures by government to protect miners with adequate safety regulations, which has resulted in an unconscionable number of deaths and injuries. The bill failed this year, but the lead sponsor indicated that he wanted to work on the bill and bring it back next year.
There may be merit to the proposed legislation. West Virginia needs the office of miner health, safety, and training to focus on certification and training and stay away from enforcement because it is an unnecessary burden borne by operators in West Virginia and, in many cases, complicates matters to the point that safety was compromised. Further, as asserted by the sponsor of the bill, that having state mine inspectors is redundant, with 120 state inspectors compared to the approximately 500 federal inspectors both inspecting the 93 active coal mines in the state. West Virginia wouldn’t be the first coal producing state to shift focus to training as similar models exist in Kentucky and Illinois, where inspectors help miner operators with compliance with state and federal regulations. The sponsor is not advocating against mine safety enforcement by MSHA. However, an inspectorate group which focuses their efforts on education and safety improvement might have the most impact, not just going through the regulatory mandates, but objectively educating operators on areas where they need improvement, from a nonconfrontational and non-adversarial position. This also might be more efficient and effective.
Until the WV Legislator transforms its mine safety enforcement agency, WV inspectors are still inspecting mine operations, issuing citations, and assessing penalties. We have two attorneys licensed to practice in West Virginia and are available anytime, should you need help with any mine safety issues in the State.