State mine health and safety office faces inspector 'crisis' - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

State mine health and safety office faces inspector 'crisis'

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The state office designated to ensure the safety of coal miners is facing its own staffing troubles in light of other problems involving implementing new coal mine safety legislation.

Several state mine safety representatives presented a mine safety update to state lawmakers on Feb. 19 in Charleston. In one report, the agency details a host of staffing problems that ultimately leads to a struggle to retain dedicated employees.

Two problems have led to a lack of experienced mine safety inspectors – by 2017 about 69 percent of the current staff is eligible to retire, and coal companies, federal inspectors and other states find it easy to lure West Virginia's best. According to the report, of eight states with similar coal mine safety activity, West Virginia's pay ranks dead last.

While mine inspectors in West Virginia start at a Legislature-mandated $38,160 and average about $55,000, other states make more. Virginia averages a salary of $70,000 per inspector, with other states paying as high as $94,000.

A survey of West Virginia inspectors found that many would be much happier with raises as low as about $10,000.

"While this amount is still significantly below comparable rates in industry and MSHA, they felt that the personal value of knowing they were helping to make it safer and healthier for other miners would tip the balance for many facing a choice," the report states.

The legislature required the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training to conduct the study. It also found that minimum qualifications are in line with or exceed other states' requirements.

"OHMS&T faces a crisis of pending retirements that could decimate the corps of seasoned mine inspectors," the report states. "While it was noted above that compensation increases will help in this challenge, the satisfaction of knowing that they play a major role in protecting the safety and health of their friends and family involved in mining plays an important role as well."

Many of the West Virginia mine inspectors, WVOHMS&T director Eugene White said, stay on board simply for the love of the job and the good it does for state miners.

"Our inspectors are on a 40-hour work week. Trust me, very few of them work less than 40," White said. "They work 50 and turn in 40. I know this for a fact, I did it when I worked as an inspector, and our inspectors continue to do that."

He said that is what separates the West Virginia mine inspectors – all of whom must have mining experience – from other mine inspectors in other states or at the federal level.

"You do this job because you want to, because you're concerned or because you can about coal miners in this state," White said. "We have coal miners as inspectors."

Economic certainty, consultant Randy Harris told lawmakers, might soon fade. If so, the retention problem could swell even more.

"We can't compete with the coal industry when production goes back up again on compensation," Harris said. "We have to continue to build on the culture."

Less frequently cited problems in the survey included "less politics in rulemaking," "better guidance on implementing the law" and "better defined rules."

The state is responsible for inspecting 271 underground mines and 217 surface mines.

Del. Mike Caputo, majority whip and union representative, expressed concern about the offices' interpretation of recent mine safety legislation. The agency had increased violation fines, but only on higher fines. Caputo said the intention was to raise all fines.

Caputo warned against following Virginia's lead and adjusting inspections based not receiving violations.

"I think if we do anything, we need to increase inspections," White said in agreement.

Caputo said he was concerned about a disturbing trend he's seen in his own region. Many of the deaths are not those of inexperienced or new miners. Many fatalities are those of highly experienced miners.

""I wish I could answer and tell you what the problem is," said Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. "If I could, I probably wouldn't be the director. I'd be a consultant, and I'd be rich."