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Vol. 81/No. 32      August 28, 2017

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Coal miner deaths rise as bosses push more speedup

The first seven months of 2017 have seen a dramatic rise in deaths of miners on the job in U.S. coal mines after several years when they had been declining as the industry contracted. By Aug. 5, 11 miners have died, more than the eight killed in 2016.

Many are new miners, or experienced miners working in new coal mines. Five were in their early 30s or 20s. Four had spent less than a year at the mine, one only a few days. A number were experienced miners, but because of bankruptcies, closures and the downturn in coal production had recently taken jobs in new mines.

The majority of the deaths have been in the eastern coalfields, five in West Virginia alone.

There has been a sharp drop in the number of union-organized mines in the last couple decades, as the mine bosses in search of profits have pushed hard for speedup and corner-cutting on safety.

Ray Hatfield Jr., a 23-year veteran in the mines, was six months into his latest job when he was crushed to death in a Kentucky mine Jan. 26. The Mine Safety and Health Administration said his death was preventable, citing a number of safety violations at the mine.

“Hatfield was working in a deathtrap, with not even minimal safety requirements being met,” Tony Oppegard, an area attorney who represents mining families, told the press. “This is what a lot of Appalachian coal miners have to put up with.”

Patricia Silvey, the deputy assistant secretary of labor, said MSHA will respond by organizing visits to mines, reviewing training programs and observing young miners on the job.

The United Mine Workers of America said the initiative falls far short of what is needed, noting federal inspectors who conduct such training visits are barred from punishing the mine if they spot safety violations.

“To take away the inspector’s right to issue a violation takes away the one and only enforcement power the inspector and the agency has,” union President Cecil Roberts wrote in a recent letter to MSHA. The union also pointed out that at union mines, a union representative would not be required to accompany inspectors on these visits.

“When you let up on enforcement and you want to coddle operators and ask them to comply and assist them with complying, instead of making them comply,” UMWA spokesman Phil Smith told the media, “you will inevitably see an increase in bad accidents, bad injuries and fatalities.”

“To my way of thinking, new miners are not getting enough experience; they’re just getting turned loose. There should be more on-the-job training,” Wilson Maxwell, president of UMWA Local 8982 at the preparation plant for the Oak Grove mine in Alabama, told the Militant in a phone interview. In June Marius Shepherd, a 32-year-old miner involved in preshift examinations there, was killed in a train haulage accident underground. “He had only been at the mine a short period of months, and didn’t have any experience on the haulage,” Maxwell said.

When he started in the mines, Maxwell explained, “I didn’t run a piece of equipment for a year. Nowadays, with a few days of experience, they have workers running equipment.” He criticized MSHA’s plans for mine visits that bar inspectors from writing up violations, saying, “If there is a danger, something should be done.”

The rise in coal mine deaths occurs as coal production is increasing for the first time in years. E&E News, which describes itself as an organ for “energy and environment professionals,” wrote that the uptick in coal production “has led to a handful of new mine openings and more shifts at existing mines. But the downturn saw many ex-miners leave for new jobs or new towns, with only red hats [inexperienced miners] to take their place.”

Coal production is up 15 percent in the first six months of 2017 after record low production last year. Prices for natural gas — the main competitor of coal for power plants — are up and demand for export coal in China has increased. This has led to new hiring.

A year ago many of the big coal producers were in bankruptcy. Since then, the two top companies, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, have restructured and are trading on the stock exchange again.

And they’re taking steps to boost profitability at the expense of miners’ life and limb. “High-cost coal mines are being shuttered while operations are moved to low-cost regions,” Wall Street investment firm said.
Related articles:
On The Picket Line
No coal miner has to die!
Frame-up trial against Quebec rail workers to begin Sept. 11
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