CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coal miners are dying on the job at an alarming pace while politicians are squabbling and the government remains partially closed, the United Mine Workers of America said Tuesday.
Last week was the first time since 2002 the industry had three deaths in three days - one each in West Virginia, Illinois and Wyoming. The union called on workers to "watch each other's back" and take extra precautions working around machinery while regular safety inspections by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration are on hold.
President Cecil Roberts says the West Virginia supervisor was a former union member, and the UMWA is participating in the investigation at CONSOL Energy's McElroy Mine near Cameron.
It's too soon to draw conclusions because the circumstances of the accidents vary, but Roberts called the timing "extremely troubling." That's the same phrase MSHA director Joe Main used to describe the pattern on Monday.
Less than half his staff is working, and inspections are largely focused on mines with a documented history of problems.
"But no regular inspections are taking place, even though they are required by law," Roberts noted. "The government's watchdog isn't watching."
Federal law requires a complete inspection of every underground mine at least once per quarter and at every surface mine at least twice a year.
"Safety violations that would normally be caught and corrected ... are being missed," Roberts said, adding that in a coal mine, an accumulation of small violations can become dangerous very quickly.
Bruce Watzman of the National Mining Association said his organization is concerned "anytime there is a loss of life at a mine." But he noted that state inspectors remain on the job.
MSHA has furloughed 1,400 of its 2,355 employees nationwide.