MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Safety talks that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin urged for more than 500 West Virginia coal operations after a string of deaths should be completed within days, the state's top mine safety official says.
A total of 85 safety instructors, inspectors, supervisors, mine-rescue coordinators and administrators at the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training should finish their visits at underground mines this weekend, agency Director Eugene White said. But it will likely take until midweek to wrap up with surface mines and preparation plants.
The goal is to reach every miner in the state, regardless of which shift they work.
White said he fully supported Tomblin's call for the "stand-down" — when operations halt production for an hour to discuss mine safety — after the state's fourth mining-related fatality in a two-week period.
Since November, six miners have died on the job in West Virginia.
"We had to do something," said White, who took over the state regulatory agency in January.
White visited Newtown Energy's Rachel Peerless mine in Boone County, meeting with the day shift, which was brought out early, and the evening shift, before they went underground Wednesday.
"Everybody was concerned," White said, adding that while the miners had heard about some fatalities, few realized that four men had been lost in just 14 days.
Critics call such timeouts for safety publicity stunts, but White says they're necessary because "over time, people forget."
"When we quit communicating and talking with the companies and the miners," he said, "we'll lose altogether."
"Sitting and talking does work. Yes, enforcement is part of our job, and we're going to do that," he said, but safety starts with the miners themselves.
"We can't babysit them. We can't be there with them every minute of the day," White said. "They're a unique group of individuals. They're a close-knit group of individuals. These guys know their co-workers better than their immediate family."
White said he told workers to watch one another closely and to be alert if someone seems upset or distracted.
Stand-downs are not uncommon in West Virginia.
In April 2010, after an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 men, former Gov. Joe Manchin issued an executive order calling for a similar timeout. He also urged one in 2006, after another string of fatal accidents.
The latest was prompted by the death of John Myles, 44, a shuttle car operator from Hilltop who was struck by a scoop Tuesday night at Pocahontas Coal Co.'s Affinity mine near Sophia. Myles was shoveling as the scoop operator gathered the coal up, White said, but the scoop reversed directions, striking and crushing the victim.
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