Thursday, July 06, 2017

States reduce coal mine inspections

Rickey Thorpe was killed in a 2015
mining accident in Western Kentucky.
A new law in Kentucky reduces state inspection requirements for underground coal mines, a move that follows similar changes in other states but concerns many miners and safety experts.

Three of the six required state inspections can now be replaced with a "safety analysis" visit that focuses on teaching miners better safety practices, Dylan Lovan reports for The Associated Press. Safety analysis visits have been done for years, but have never taken the place of mandatory inspections. Kentucky Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Allen Luttrell will also be allowed to reduce the number of required electrical inspections from two down to one.

West Virginia lawmakers proposed a similar law, AP notes, but it was shelved after backlash from locals. United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said Illinois and Alabama have reduced their state inspection requirements, Virginia only requires two annual inspections, and western mining states have mostly eliminated state inspections.

Federal inspectors are still required to conduct four inspections a year on underground coal mines, though President Trump is proposing deep cuts to the Department of Labor, which oversees the federal mine safety program.

Kentucky's Luttrell insists that mines will still be inspected more frequently if there seems to be a safety problem. "We can still do as many inspections as we want, and if there's a reason to be there more often than three inspections or four inspections, we're going to be there," he told Lovan. "If you've got a normal mining activity and things are going in compliance, then in my opinion, the time is better spent performing observations and coaching and talking to the individual coal miner."

Kentucky mine safety lawyer Tony Oppegard is skeptical of the new law, however, saying that most mine accidents are because of company negligence, not miner safety habits. Emphasizing coaching over compliance violations is "code for saying miners are too stupid to work safely," he says.

Kathy Bartlett criticizes the new law, saying her son, Rickey Thorpe, was killed in a coal mining accident in 2015 because of unsafe working conditions, not poor personal safety habits. A coal digging machine's 17-ton cutting head was propped up with wooden boards but gave out as he worked underneath, she says. Federal inspectors after the fact agreed that Thorpe's supervisors created an unsafe work environment by propping up the machine with boards, AP reports. Bartlett says that companies can deliberately put miners in unsafe situations, so coaching wouldn't have helped. "The night that my son got killed, if somebody would have looked and seen how the miner head was cribbed up, the fatality would have never happened," she said. "He was doing as he was told."

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