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Mining coal safely is everyone's job

ON the third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster, which killed 29 men, Delegate Randy Smith, R-Preston, discussed his experience with safety after more than 33 years as a miner.

His remarks were sobering. Simply passing more laws and mandating more inspections can go only so far. Mine operators and miners have to take personal responsibility.

Miners have never had more training than they receive these days, he said. The laws have never been stricter. And yet, since the Upper Big Branch explosion, West Virginia has suffered 24 mining fatalities.

That is 24 too many.

"To be honest with you, us as coal miners are probably our biggest enemy," Smith told the Daily Mail's Dave Boucher. "Because a lot of the guys, like this year, the fatalities, a lot of these guys have 20, 30 years mining experience.

"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."

Smith knows the subject firsthand. In September, he broke his foot and ankle, crushed his heel and broke his shoulder in a partial roof collapse.

To be sure, inspections could be improved. In February, the Sunday Gazette-Mail reported that West

Virginia regulators still haven't begun citing and fining mine operators who violate new standards aimed at preventing coal-dust explosions after Upper Big Branch.

Is piling on more regulation perhaps not the answer?

Focusing everyone's attention on enforcing those regulations that will have the greatest impact on safety might have more impact.

Some proposals are downright puzzling. One push this year calls for methane monitors to shut down equipment once levels meet 1.25 percent. But there is no technology available to make that happen, Smith said.

Ultimately, though mine safety begins at the top, it is   carried out by miners.

"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.

No one - from management to miners - should settle for that.


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