Sept. 25, 2012, started out like any other day for Randy Smith.
A section foreman with more than 33 years' experience underground, Smith headed to work at Metikki Coal, a mine owned by Alliance Coal near Mt. Storm in Grant County.
He'd accomplished that day's task thousands of times before: sliding out some tubing used for ventilation. And yet, in a split second, the veteran miner nearly lost his life.
The tubing slid out too far, causing a chain reaction that led to a partial roof collapse. Hitting him first in the shoulder, the fall eventually buried his legs. He broke his foot and ankle, "crushed" his heel and broke his shoulder.
"No one appreciates coal mine safety more than what I do," Smith, newly elected Republican delegate from Preston County, said from his office at the Capitol.
Three years ago today, 29 coal miners lost their lives in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County. In that time, laws have been passed and lawsuits have been filed.
A sudden uptick in mining deaths this year has politicians and industry members alike concerned for safety.
There have been 24 West Virginia mining fatalities since Upper Big Branch, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. There were six additional deaths in 2010, six in 2011 and seven in 2012.
But the rate seemed to climb early this year, with five miners killed in separate incidents. Four occurred within a two-week span in February, which led Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Feb. 20 to call for a statewide "stand down" to review safety procedures.
Procedures and regulations aren't the problem, Smith said.
"To be honest with ya, us as coal miners are probably our biggest enemy. Because a lot of the guys, like this year, the fatalities, a lot of these guys have 20, 30 years mining experience," Smith said.
"They're not the younger people getting killed, it's the older guys that are getting killed. We're not taking care of business, we're not paying attention to what's going on around us. You just get complacent. We can't do that," he said.
There's never been more training for miners, Smith said. On any given day, there could be six state or federal inspectors at the mine.
Working while an inspector is watching is different from when no one is looking, Smith said.
The nature of the job is inherently repetitive and at times complicated. Green or experienced, a miner can get complacent or lazy. That's a dangerous combination in an already dangerous environment.
"A lot of times we get hurt because we're lazy, we want to do it the easy way. You take a shortcut, the next thing you know you're crippled up because you took a shortcut," Smith said.
There are times when safety is out of a miner's hands, Smith said. While he believes most coal companies have the best intentions, he admits there are bad apples. And companies bear their own brunt of the safety burden, he said.
Last year, the Legislature passed a mine safety measure directly linked to circumstances that lead to unsafe conditions at UBB. The House of Delegates and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin crafted the legislation, which addressed unsafe levels of the combustible gas methane and increased penalties for safety violations.
For House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, holding those in charge accountable was one of the strongest portions of the bill. Caputo, a longtime representative for the United Mine Workers union, said the measure requires mine superintendents to sign off on inspection logs.
"Because for far too long, they could basically take a walk and say they weren't responsible, they didn't see the books, they didn't know what was going on at the operation and they didn't know that things were in the condition they were in," Caputo said.