WASHINGTON -- Examiners now use meters to measure concentrations of coal dust, rather than gauge it by sight. Instead of relying on co-workers to holler when they get too close to dangerous equipment, miners now see a bright light -- and if they don't heed the warning, machines automatically shut down using the same kind of technology that triggers grocery-store doors to open automatically.
Whistleblower protections are in place, daily inspections are more thorough, escape routes are more clearly marked and safety violations are more closely tracked to identify repeat offenders.
This isn't your granddaddy's coal mine. It's not even your big brother's coal mine.
The 2010 disaster that killed 29 Upper Big Branch miners in West Virginia has spurred numerous changes aimed at making the industry safer. A hundred were recommended by a government panel, while others were voluntarily initiated by the coal industry.
"In the period since Upper Big Branch, there was just improvement after improvement," said Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health.
Managers of Massey Energy Co., which operated Upper Big Branch, were found to have conspired to conceal problems, alter safety documents and warn when inspectors arrived so employees underground would have time to spread rock dust and conceal ventilation problems.
Meanwhile, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was widely criticized for failing to properly enforce safety regulations that may have prevented the explosion.
For example, a 1977 rule established a procedure for MSHA to shut down mines that exhibit a pattern of serious safety violations, but the agency made no use of the provision for 34 years. After the Upper Big Branch disaster, MSHA clarified the rule, changed the criteria, and began enforcing it. MSHA used the Pattern of Violations rule for the first time in 2011 to initiate shut-down procedures mines in Kentucky and West Virginia.
"These are pretty serious enforcement actions that caused a number of mines to realize the agency is real serious about this now," Mr. Main said. "We've been clearer about our expectations."
His agency also began to focus safety inspections on the most common and most hazardous violations.
As a result, the most dangerous mines in the country started to shape up, he said. Forty-nine of 53 mines were taken off MSHA's list of chronic violators, and 2011 became the safest year in mining history with the lowest levels of reported injuries and fatalities. The safety records remained strong through the end of last year when 15 miners were killed in 14 separate incidents, making it one of the worst quarters in the past several years.
There has been speculation that incidents increased because of last year's government shutdown.
"We're not saying that the fatalities did or did not have any relationship to that, but we are saying that we couldn't do our regular routine inspections of mines where we do wall-to-wall inspections," Mr. Main said. "When a shutdown occurs, you're not permitted to do the regular, normal job you usually do."
Coal companies get proactive
There is much work left to do. Among the next steps are to finalize a rule requiring proximity detection equipment, which automatically shuts down continuous mining equipment when miners working in narrow spaces get dangerously close.
Some proactive coal companies already are installing them.
Consol Energy, which operates four mines in Western Pennsylvania, is among them.
The company also acted quickly after the Upper Big Branch explosion to reduce exposure to combustible black coal dust, to improve ventilation and enhance emergency response systems through practice drills.
The efforts earned the company recognition from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which presented it with its Mine Safety and Health Technology Innovations Award in 2012.
Upper Big Branch wasn't the first tragedy that spurred Consol to make changes.
After a mine explosion trapped 13 miners in Sago, W.Va. in 2006, Consol became a test site for technology that Lockheed Martin is still developing a wireless system that allows rescuers to communicate over magnetic waves with miners underground.
Next, Consol plans to invest in integrated safety helmets that filter air, shield faces and protect hearing.
"It doesn't have anything to do with the new standards coming out but, based on our values, we wanted to provide some personal protective equipment for our employees who work in an environment that's less than ideal," said Lou Barletta, Consol's vice president of safety.
The innovations aren't cheap, and they're being added at a time the industry is losing market share to natural gas, but Consol hasn't balked at the price, about $1 billion since the Sago disaster, Mr. Barletta estimates.
Compliance and safety measures give comfort to miners and their families, said Chuck Nelson, a retired coal miner from Glen Daniel, W.Va., where former co-workers used to leave behind letters telling their wives and children they loved them.
"Those are the kind of letters you write when you go to war, not when you go to work," said Mr. Nelson, 57, who spent 30 years mining West Virginia coal.
"Now they can feel a little bit safer, but there is a whole lot more that can be done to improve safety," he said.
For one, he wants MSHA to require miners -- not managers -- to conduct the mandatory safety inspections required each day before shift crews enter the mines. They know the mines best and have the most to lose if something is unsafe, Mr. Nelson said.
That's already required at union companies but not nonunion ones like Consol, where inspections are sometimes conducted by miners and sometimes by managers.
To Mr. Nelson, among the best reforms are the enhanced whistleblower protections.
"I saw things, but if I said anything I knew I was gone. Instead I did my work and I went home. I really couldn't say anything," he remembers. "It's good that they have protections now. We didn't have that."
Friends still in the mines have told Mr. Nelson conditions are better, however they were still too fearful of repercussions to be interviewed for this story. Some, he said, remain particularly concerned about black lung, an incurable respiratory disease acquired by inhalation of coal dust.
That's one reason lawmakers -- including Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. -- have been working to gradually reduce the level of coal dust exposure that triggers a violation.
Mr. Nelson said the time is ripe for change because Sago and Upper Big Branch are still in people's minds.
"When time passes everybody forgets how outraged they were. The longer it goes on, it kind of fades away and it's not such a big issue anymore," he said.
Mr. Casey is of a similar mind.
"Sometimes unfortunately, it's not until a tragedy that you have this kind of progress," the senator said. "It was a tragedy of such dimension and horror. We really needed a whole menu of changes to be made, and there has been a lot of progress."
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.