Labor and Employment

Mine Safety in Focus Again

  • On April 5, 2010, 29 miners were killed in an explosion in a West Virginia Coal mine
  • Almost immediately, President Obama called for tougher federal mine safety laws
  • In the meantime, at least one miner's family has filed a lawsuit against the owner of the mine

It's sad, but sometimes it takes a tragedy before we take action to try to fix a problem and come to appreciate what we often take for granted.

Mine Explosion

On April 5, 2010, there was an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine owned by Massey Energy. In all, 29 miners were killed - 25 were reported killed very early after the explosion, and four others were found dead in the mine several days later by rescue crews.

What caused it? The investigation is ongoing as of mid-April, but investigators from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) are blaming dangerously high levels of methane gas and coal dust in the mine.

This was the worst mining accident in the US since 1970 when 38 miners were killed in a Kentucky mine.

The Law

The MSHA, part of the US Department of Labor (DOL), is in charge of enforcing the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (Mine Act). This law requires coal mine owners and operators to follow various safety measures. The MSHA inspects all US mines at least once per year to make sure those rules are being followed.

The Mine Act was changed a little bit in 2006 when the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 became law. This law was a response to mine tragedies in 2006:

  • The Sago Mine in West Virginia exploded, killing 12 miners
  • Two miners were killed in a fire in the Aracoma Mine in West Virginia, which also is owned by Massey Energy

Under these laws, mines have to have various safety measures, such as:

  • Emergency shelters
  • Reliable communication systems
  • Water and oxygen provisions
  • Emergency response plans

Stiff fines and penalties are given to mines that don't follow the rules. Massey Energy was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for safety violations from 2005 all the way up to just before the April explosion.

Reactions and Needs

President Obama, almost immediately after the explosion, called for tougher mine safety laws and tougher enforcement of those laws. The President noted that, despite the 2006 laws, companies like Massey are able to skirt around safety issues and paying fines by challenging the fines in court.

The President suggested changes to the fine-process to make it faster, as well as tougher rules and penalties for companies that consistently have safety violations.

In the meantime, the widow of one coal miner killed in the April explosion has filed a lawsuit against Massey. In her wrongful death lawsuit, she claims Massey's responsible for her husband's death based upon the mine's past safety record and poor conditions at the mine.

Safety hazards at the nation's mines are no secret. According the most recent information from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of mining-related deaths in 2007 was 24.8 per 100,000 workers. That's nearly six times the rate for all other types of private jobs.

Hopefully, safety will get better at Massey's mines, and the other mines across the US, as a result of new and tougher federal laws, lawsuits by the families of miners injured or killed, or both. Whatever it takes. It's the least we should do for the brave souls who help give us the energy we need and use everyday.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If my husband is killed in a mining accident, how long do I have to file a lawsuit? Should I file a lawsuit?
  • I've complained to state authorities about poor safety at my work site, but nothing's been done and now I'm afraid I'm going to get fired. What should I do?
  • Everyone knows mining is dangerous, so how can someone sue a coal company or mine owner over a miner's injury or death?
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