Report on mine fatalities assailed by union
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An inspector general's audit report that looked at how federal mine safety officials determine which mining deaths are work-related is coming under fire.
The report, released last week, reviewed 152 chargeable death decisions from 2004 through 2006, plus a sampling of 24 decisions in 2007. It found that the rulings were consistent and it found no decisions "where a chargeability decision was clearly contradicted by available evidence."
The problem, critics say, is that the report looked at too few cases over too short a period.
"They're sampling within the context of the current approach, so they're not really comparing anything," says J. Davitt McAteer, who headed the Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration.
"We do wish they would go back and look further into prior years, because we think there is more to be discovered," said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.
The audit was done by the inspector general in the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the Mine Safety and Health Administration, at the request of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the Committee on Education and Labor.
Aaron Albright, spokesman for the committee, said committee members appreciated the inspector general's work but "we also believe that MSHA's guidelines on what they consider a 'chargeable death' may warrant further review."
While dozens of people die at U.S. mining operations every year, not all deaths are related to the mining operation itself. For example, if someone trespasses on mine property and is fatally injured, or if someone commits suicide on mine property, the death is considered "nonchargeable."
In December, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the number of nonchargeable deaths had increased in recent years, and the criteria for counting deaths appeared to have narrowed.
In one case, MSHA officials first ruled as chargeable the October 2004 death of Forrest Riley Sr., 54, at the Consolidation Coal Co.'s Shoemaker Mine near Dallas, W.Va. Then, at year's end, they changed it to nonchargeable.
Mr. Riley, of Steubenville, Ohio, was operating a battery tractor when one of the wheels ran over a pipe, which struck him on his left side and pinned him in the cab. Another tractor had to be brought in to rescue him, but he was pronounced dead from a heart attack at a hospital.
MSHA determined Mr. Riley's death was from natural causes.
By limiting the number of chargeable deaths, the mining community could argue that mining was becoming safer for workers -- at least until 12 miners died following an explosion at West Virginia's Sago Mine in January 2006. By year's end, 47 miners had died in underground mining accidents.
One week after Mr. Riley's death was changed to "nonchargeable," MSHA issued a press release proclaiming a new record low for mining fatalities in 2004.
That year, Joe Main, UMWA's administrator for health and safety at the time, had complained to MSHA about three other deaths that were deemed nonchargeable, including a February 2004 incident in which brakes on a miner's truck failed, sending it into a sludge pond and fatally injuring the miner.
"Why were these deaths not charged to the mining industry, and how many others occurred like these that were not charged?" Mr. Main asked in his letter. The three were later reclassified as chargeable.
Even if the determinations of chargeability are correct, Mr. McAteer said he is troubled by the number of nonchargeable deaths -- 72 of 145 deaths at mines in 2006.
"That is a rather dramatic and inexplicable number," he said. "I think the industry ought to be concerned if there are that many nonchargeable deaths. That's enough people that we should understand what is happening, and the industry and the agency should be responding to that."
First Published November 18, 2007 12:00 am