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William “Bob” Griffith, 54 died at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine on April 5.   His tribute page says he

“came from a family of miners, went into the mines as a young man with his father and worked there like his brothers.  …When he wasn’t working, Griffith and his wife were fixing up their 1967 Camaro.”

His wife Melanie Griffith has now asked MSHA asst. secretary Joe Main twice (once on April 20 and April 23) for his agency to hold a public hearing as part of the disaster investigation.  In her request yesterday, she pleads for a response, noting:

“time is of the essence”

Her letter continues:

“It is our understanding that MSHA will begin witness interviews on Tuesday.  Family members deserve and demand full transparency and a voice as they go through what is undoubtedly the most difficult time of their lives.  Please respond to this most urgent request.”

I’m confident that Mr. Main and the Labor Secretary’s top staff will make a prompt decision on Mrs. Melanie Griffith’s request, or contact her (and the other Massey families) early next week to fill them in on their decision-making process.

by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

On April 9, wearing my correspondent’s hat for Mine Safety and Health News, I emailed a member of the Department of Labor public affairs staff, suggesting that this document be posted. On April 12, I again requested the plan.  On April 13, I filed a FOIA.  The documentation has now been added by the agency to its single-source Upper Big Branch

(You might think that, as a requester, I might have got word from someone at MSHA that the plan was now posted, rather being left to stumble across it.  Or maybe not. Ken Ward has had some things to say lately about transparency at MSHA.)

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Mr. Jim DeMarce, Director of the Labor Department’s Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation, passed away suddenly on April 12.  He served coal miners and their families for 25 years, helping them wade through the federal black lung benefits program.  He was also known more recently for his efforts during the Clinton Administration to improve the regulations for processing that seem forever stacked against workers in favor of coal mine operators. 

Steve Sanders of the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center said this about Jim DeMarce:

I was acquainted with Jim for about 10 years through my work on black lung benefits claims.  He regularly attended the annual meeting of the Black Lung Clinics and Respiratory Disease Clinics.   Each year Jim would give a presentation on the federal black lung program with statistical information, such as the approvals and length of time for adjudications. 

Jim was very concerned about disabled miners and widows and wanted to see the black lung benefits program serve the disabled miners and widows in the ways it was intended.  He worked on the 2000 amendments to the regulations, trying to create a more level playing field for claimants, who up to that time were being completely overwhelmed by the superior resources of the insurance companies fighting against them. 

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by the Spirit of Frances Perkins

During last week’s Latino Action Summit on Worker Health and Safety in Houston, Labor Secretary Solis said:

“…I am urging Congress to pass the Protecting Americas Workers Act to give vulnerable workers more security when they speak out to defend their lives.”

That was the first time I’ve heard the Labor Secretary publicly mention PAWA and those were some welcome words.  The bill, HR 2067, is quite modest in its approach to enhancing the OSH Act.  It would:

  • adjust monetary penalties for violating H&S standards to the inflation rate
  • improve whistleblower protections and procedures for workers who exercise their H&S rights
  • ensure State and local employees are given H&S protections
  • require OSHA to investigate all fatalities and serious injury incidents
  • give family-member victims of workplace fatalities the right to meet with OSHA before citations are issued, make a victim’s impact statement to the OSH Review Commission

Yet, prior to last week, Mrs. Solis had been largely silent about it.  In fact, it was just a month ago that we first heard officially the Obama Administration’s position on the bill when Dr. David Michaels, the OSHA Assistant Secretary testified in support of the legislation.  (TPH post here)

Regrettably, it seems that the death of six refinery workers in Washington State from a blast on April 2 and the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 coal miners has focused the Secretary’s attention on worker health and safety.   Better late than never, I suppose.

Now that Secretary Solis told the audience in Houston that she strongly supports PAWA, I hope she contacts key Members of Congress—especially in the Senate—and convinces them that the nation’s working people need these and more workplace H&S protections.  The Senators who currently endorse the bill are:

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by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

MSHA last Tuesday issued a citation to the Performance Coal Co. Upper Big Branch Mine – South, alleging insufficient measures to control explosive coal dust before the fatal April 5 explosion.  The April 13 citation was based on a sample taken March 15 – three weeks before the fatal accident. The time required for lab analysis of such samples creates a lag in obtaining results.  An MSHA inspector took eight dust samples from mine surfaces on March 15, the citation stated.

“One out of eight samples taken were less than 80 per centum of combustible [sic] content,”

read the text of the citation, in a printout from MSHA’s computer system obtained by Mine Safety and Health News.

MSHA alleged that the mine violated standard 75.403.  The standard specifies that incombustible content of underground coal mine surfaces required to be rock dusted must be at least 65% in general, 80% in return air courses, and still higher – according to a formula – for each 0.1% methane present.  The samples were taken on Mechanized Mining Unit 029-0, according to the citation.  A detailed mine map provided by MSHA indicated that that 029-0 was the number of the unit engaged in developing a new area for future longwall mining.

In issuing the citation – 8 days after the blast – MSHA characterized the alleged violation as “reasonably” likely to cause up to 30 deaths. Negligence by the mine operator was characterized as “low,” however.  The April 5 accident remains under investigation, and whether the alleged violation could have actually contributed remains undetermined.

MSHA also on April 13 issued a withdrawal order to the Upper Big Branch Mine under section 104(b) for alleged failure to correct a previously cited violation within the time allowed, the agency database showed.

MSHA did not respond today to a request for specifics on the alleged uncorrected violation.

Kathy Snyder worked at MSHA for 26 years in the office of public affairs.  She retired from her career position at the agency in 2004, and is the Washington, DC correspondent for Ellen’s Smith publication  Mine Safety and Health News

by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

I wasn’t able to catch President Obama’s remarks on mine safety live, but immediatley saw the summary by Ken Ward at Coal Tattoo.  Two main thrusts in the points flagged by Ken: MSHA needs a better way of identifying mines that need extra enforcement attention.  And new legislation is almost 100% certain in the next months.  Update: exceptionally strong words from the President’s actual statement:

….we do know that this tragedy was triggered by a failure at the Upper Big Branch mine — a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue.

Many experienced, intelligent and thoughtful people will be giving their best attention to reforming mine safety.  The S-Miner Act, which was proposed but not enacted after Crandall Canyon in 2007, is one likely starting point.  Not an engineer, nor an attorney — but nevertheless, having worked more than 30 years around mine safety issues, I would like to offer a few personal reflections that someone might possibly find useful.

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by Tom Bethell

Twenty-nine coal miners lost their lives in last week’s massive explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

Why?

Part of the answer to that question will have to wait until the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) conducts its investigation of the disaster.  Only then will we know precisely where the ignition point was and why methane was allowed to build to the point where it constituted 5 to 15 percent of the mine atmosphere — the range at which the otherwise inert gas becomes lethally explosive.

But no one familiar with the coal mining industry will have to wait to answer the larger question:

Why do coal miners die?

They die because of negligence.  They die because the company they work for cares more about running coal than making mines safe.  And they die because the federal agency that is charged with protecting them fails in its mission.

About the first instance of negligence there can be no question.  The explosion was too violent and too extensive to have been caused by a pocket of methane alone.  The initial blast must have ignited coal dust — which is even more explosive than methane — and that couldn’t have happened if management had been diligent about cleaning up accumulations of loose coal, particularly along the conveyor belt carrying coal out of the mine.  But we know from MSHA’s inspection records that maintenance at Upper Big Branch never got top priority.  That went to production — regardless of how many times the mine was cited for lax safety practices.

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While we in the US have been mourning the preventable deaths of 29 West Virginia miners, people in China have been anxiously awaiting news of the workers still unaccounted for at the Wangjialing coal mine in the Shanxi province. That mine flooded on March 28, and a heroic rescue effort brought 115 men out alive.

Hope has faded for the remaining five mineworkers who have not been found. The Associated Press reports that on Sunday, crews retrieved five more bodies, which brought the death toll to 33.

In other news:

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by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

One week after the Upper Big Branch explosion, apparently no confirmed listing yet exists of the 29 miners who lost their lives in the catastrophe.  A spokeswoman at Massey Energy told me this morning,

“Out of respect for the families, the company is not releasing names at this time.”

A state spokesperson also advised this morning that Office of Mine Safety & Licensing (OMSL) is not releasing names and suggested contacting the medical examiner’s (ME) office; an administrative person at the ME’s office did not immediately return a message.  No official fatality list has appeared on MSHA’s helpful single-source page to date, and an email to the MSHA press office about this has not been answered.

Journalists apparently have been left to piece the fatality list together by combing through obituaries and Facebook pages and by seeking out family members, neighbors and others in the community.  While I respect the wish of accident victims’ families for privacy, I find the apparent official secrecy at this stage somewhat troubling.  It is a week since the explosion and almost three days since family members, sadly, knew the worst.

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I noticed on RegInfo.gov that OSHA submitted the draft of its final rule on crane safety to OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) on Friday, April 9 for review.  This is an OSHA rule that has been in the works since 2003 (see here, here, here, here, here, here.)  Historically, OIRA staff expect to have 90 days to review major rules like this one. 

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis’ Fall 2009 regulatory agenda indicated her plan to have this final cranes and derricks safety rule published by July 2010.   In a June 2009 post, “What’s next for OSHA’s crane rule,” I describe what I thought were the key decision points for OSHA to address, including: what is an appropriate phase-in period for operator certification?  what should be the minimum standards for certification? how to distinguish between training and certification? and should OSHA adopt the ‘federalism’ language recommended by NYC?  I challenged the Administration to get the rule finished by the end of 2009.  That didn’t happen, but thankfully, it’s moving now.

There are many families around the country who have lost loved ones from crane-related hazards and employers’ disregard for workers’ safety.  Steven Lillicrap, 21, of Maryland Heights, MO, was killed that way. 

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