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Big Picture Look at Safety Needed after Coal Tragedy

By James Sharpe

Fewer U.S. miners died in 2009 than in any other prior year. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) heralded the achievement in a January 2010 news release with these words:

Just three short months later, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia convulsed the nation and cast doubt on the agency's self-congratulatory claim about the central role of tough enforcement in mine safety. Responding to the worst disaster in U.S. coal mining in 40 years, Celeste Monforton, a former staffer under MSHA Assistant Secretary Davitt McAteer, expressed the sentiment of many when she said, “I really wonder if we're moving backwards rather than forwards.”

Upper Big Branch, which claimed 29 lives, would have been remarkable had it been the only mining catastrophe during this century. But it wasn't the first, but the fifth such tragedy since 2001. The Jim Walter explosions occurred that year, followed by Sago and Darby in 2006 and Crandall Canyon in 2007. The five accidents combined claimed 68 lives. A sixth disaster was narrowly averted when nine miners were rescued from a mine inundation at Quecreek in Pennsylvania in 2002.

Generally, the government's stock response after each fatal accident is stepped-up enforcement. In fact, the enforcement surge that began after Sago remains with us four years later. What also remains is the carnage.

Strict new mine legislation passed between 1969 and 1977 has most certainly contributed to a safer mining workplace. But, in the face of a stubborn recurrence of tragedy, the time has come to question if our current system of laws, regulations and standards will get us to zero fatalities and lost-time injuries. It is possible the current system has done a good job of picking off the low-hanging fruit, but a radical new approach may be needed to get at what is harder to reach.

Indeed, our compliance-based approach has fundamental flaws. First, safety professionals, even MSHA officials themselves, do not believe compliance alone is sufficient. But the present system neither encourages nor rewards those who seek to go beyond the minimum. According to MSHA chief Joe Main, numerous mining operations do not even do that, but rely on MSHA to serve as their safety department.

Too many companies are perfectly willing to stand pat until MSHA makes a move. When the agency finally does decide to act, years often pass before new rules are in place, assuming the effort is successful at all. Even then, litigation can trigger still further delays. Underground mines in this country crawl toward installing proximity detection devices on mobile equipment while other countries, such as South Africa and Australia, have long since left the starting blocks.

As a strict liability statute, the Mine Act encourages a blame game culture, not one dedicated to improving safety. And it leaves miners out of the equation altogether. Even in an environment of optimal corporate intentions, some miners still do things that get them or their colleagues hurt. The law should hold anyone accountable who engages in risky behavior.

Our leaders have made promises to the victims of UBB and to their families that they will do whatever it takes to assure these miners have not died in vain. Continuing down the same well-worn path risks breaking that solemn pledge. Examples exist in the western world of successful mine safety and health governance. Isn't the time now right to take a serious look at them?

James Sharpe holds a master’s degree in environmental health sciences and is certified in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene, health and safety. He can be reached at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..