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Mine Safety Issues at Heart of WV Workers Memorial Day

PHOTO: Speakers, including West Virginia AFL-CIO President Kenny Perdue, brought up mine deaths and mine safety at the annual Workers Memorial Day observance on the State Capitol grounds. Photo credit: Dan Heyman.
PHOTO: Speakers, including West Virginia AFL-CIO President Kenny Perdue, brought up mine deaths and mine safety at the annual Workers Memorial Day observance on the State Capitol grounds. Photo credit: Dan Heyman.
April 29, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Mine safety - and recent changes to mine-safety laws - came up at West Virginia's Workers Memorial Day observance.

As part of the annual ceremony, state AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Josh Sword read aloud the names of 17 miners, utility workers and others who died on the job, as a bell rang for each.

"Gary Hensley (ring) ... Robert Jewel (ring) ... Rocky Keener (ring) ..."

In West Virginia, on-the-job accidents often take place in the mines. Coal miner David Jackson, president of United Mine Workers of America Local 1713, said he's been frustrated about safety rollbacks passed with the support of many lawmakers this year.

"They asked me, 'Is it actually dark underground, or do you have lights?' Those are the people making the laws for coal mining," he said. "Not that they're evil, but they're just uneducated when it comes to coal mining."

Supporters of changing the mine-safety laws argued that the industry needs the help as demand for coal falls. Jackson said the changes were made with mine company profits in mind and threaten to set mine safety back by decades.

Lawmakers voted to let mines have more distance between the end of tracks that carry equipment and the active coalface where the mining takes place. They also voted to allow potential barriers to line-of-sight around some underground equipment - changes made over the objections of mine union officials such as Jackson.

Looser rules could make an even more dangerous difference at nonunion mines such as Upper Big Branch, Jackson said, adding that he lost friends there five years ago when 29 men died in that mine.

"Those boys didn't have the opportunity to speak out because of retaliation of losing their jobs or the mentality of nonunion mines," he said. "And you just cannot speak out if you want to keep your job."

According to federal figures, union mines have about one-third of the rate of deaths and serious accidents as nonunion mines.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV