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Safer Direction? Top Mine Regulator Addresses Concerns About Dust And Deaths In Coal

Jess Wright/WVPB

As President Trump attempts to revive the struggling coal industry, the administration’s top regulator for mine safety used a recent lecture at West Virginia University to lay out his priorities for the agency charged with keeping miners safe.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health David Zatezalo outlined the Trump administration’s priorities for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA.

The West Virginia native and former coal mine executive addressed students, faculty and industry representatives at the annual William Poundstone lecture series at West Virginia University.

Zatezalo told the crowd the agency intends to use technology to reduce mining fatalities and injuries.

But while the agency head offered numerous possible ways technology could help reduce mechanical deaths and fatalities, he presented no plan to address one of the industry’s biggest growing concerns, the exposure to coal and rock dust behind a surge in black lung disease. Once nearly eradicated, black lung is now a public health epidemic in central Appalachia.


Credit MSHA
MSHA photographs from fatal mine accident sites.

Safety Dance

Standing in front of a handsome wooden lectern, Zatezalo methodically ticked through a slide presentation showing multiple downward-sloping graphs representing miner deaths and injuries over the years.


Credit Jesse Wright/WVPB

Overall trend lines show significant progress in miner safety and 2016 was the lowest year for mine fatalities. In 2017 fatalities ticked higher. Twenty-eight miners died in 2017; 15 in coal mines. That is on par with 2015 levels, where 12 coal miners died, despite the industry employing 20,000 more miners, according to federal data.

“I think we can get a lot better and we can keep getting better,” Zatezalo said. “We’ve made a lot of progress and last year there were 28 failures on that progress curve.”

MSHA is focused on reducing deaths and injuries specifically related to powered haulage accidents, he said. This includes accidents involving large equipment or vehicles, conveyor belt accidents, and accidents related to workers not wearing seat belts.

Last year half the fatalities that occurred in U.S. mines were attributed to powered haulage accidents. This year, so far, more than half of mining deaths are due to these kind of accidents, he said.

“Surely there has to be better ways to get these under control,” he said. “If we can get technology to come to the rescue again, we will.”

Specifically, Zatezalo said, the agency is interested in increasing the use of proximity detection technology in surface mines. Those tools alert miners when they are getting too close to equipment and Zatezalo lauded it as “a lot cheaper and it’s very important.”

MSHA this summer issued arequest for information, or RFI, on how technology could improve miner safety.


Credit Alexandria Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

“There are those in the industry who have not been happy about this,” Zatezalo noted. “For some of you an RFI is a precursor to regulation. I’m not saying it is and I’m not saying it isn’t. I’m saying it’s needed.”

Joe Main, head of MSHA under President Obama, said proximity detection technology has been shown to be an effective tool for reducing accidents. Under his tenure, the agency required underground mine operators to install proximity detection technology on continuous mining machines.

“I think there’s evidence there that those are things that will be helpful to protect miners from injuries,” he said.

Black Lung’s Return

As workplace fatalities have decreased, the epidemic resurgence of black lung disease has become a major health threat for coal miners.

While the rate of the disease dropped dramatically from 1970 to 2000, since 2000 coal miners with 25-plus years of experience have seen rates go up. A large cluster of progressive massive fibrosis, or complicated black lung, has been found among miners in Central Appalachia.


Credit NPR
An X-ray image of an Appalachian coal miner with black lung lesions

MSHA regulates coal dust exposure, collects data on dust levels in mines, and conducts inspections. In 2014, the agency put out a new rule that strengthened requirements for monitoring and reduced acceptable dust exposure levels. It required better monitoring by outfitting miners with devices called personal dust monitors, which take real-time samples and are less likely to be tampered with.

This year, the agency announced it would spend a year collecting comments before doing a study of the rule’s effectiveness. Mine safety advocates were concerned that could lead to weakening the new rule.


Zatezalo told the audience at WVU that’s not the case.

“Let me put this in unambiguous terms,” he said. “This rule, this retrospective study has nothing to do with those parameters.”

Zatezalo questioned whether the rule could really be evaluated so soon, given the long latency period for black lung disease.

“I have no interest in changing the standard because the standard was just changed and frankly can’t be accurately evaluated until about 10 years after it was changed, maybe 2025,” he said. “That’s medical facts.”

Miner safety advocates questioned that argument and said MSHA can and should be doing more.


Industry History

Zatezalo has previous experience with the pattern of violations program. He worked for 40 years in the coal mining industry, including a stint as chairman at Rhino Resources, which operates mines in West Virginia and Kentucky.

In 2010 and 2011 the company received two pattern of violation notices from the agency Zatezalo now leads. Those notices came after a miner’s death at one mine and allegations of interference in mine inspections at another.

In a brief exchange after the lecture, Zatezalo defended the Affinity Mine’s safety record, calling it one of the best in the state.

He added he has no concerns the settlement might dilute the pattern of violations as an enforcement tool.


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