West Virginia coal miners are at risk of injury and illness, but legal remedies may be available.
As of November 7, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration or MSHA reports that 13 U.S. coal miners have died at work so far in 2014. Three of them died working underground in West Virginia mines in two separate accidents. The agency cites as accident causes in the West Virginia incidents ineffective mining procedures; insufficient training; and operator failure to recognize mining hazards.
West Virginia Coal Mining by the Numbers
According to The West Virginia Encyclopedia, more than 21,000 miners have died in West Virginia mines since records started being kept in 1883. The U.S. Energy Information Administration or EIA reports that West Virginia was the second largest coal producing state in 2012, after Wyoming. For underground coal mining, the state is first in the nation; and the industry generates about 30,000 West Virginia jobs, says the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.
Coal Miner Occupational Risk
Coal mine safety is highly regulated by federal and state governments. Nevertheless, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that coal miners are still more at risk of work-related injury, disease or death than are other workers in private industry. Many workplace dangers exist such as dusty air, underground mine roof and walls that can cave in, heavy machinery and motor vehicle movement, elevated noise levels, combustible materials and more.
Here are some common injuries and illnesses of which coal miners are at particular risk:
- Black lung, silicosis and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD from coal dust
- Slips and falls may cause musculoskeletal injuries and head trauma
- Crushing and amputating injuries
- Loss of sight or hearing
- And more
Rights of West Virginia Coal Miners
A coal mine can be a dangerous place. Health threats exist in the air you breathe, the ground you dig and the tools and equipment you use. Toxin exposure, mine explosions and accidents are not uncommon.
West Virginia miners have workplace rights unique to their profession. Some coal miners may not be certain what these protections are. Coal mining injuries often drive a strong interest in regulations about working in hazardous environments and mine safety violations.
An awareness of miner health safeguards helps prevent coal mining injuries. Miner knowledge also keeps coal mine owners and operators in compliance with federal safety regulations. Employers are expected to make workers aware of their rights, but miners also may access the information through other sources, like the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.
For example, coal miners are entitled to receive no-cost chest X-rays at the time of hiring and regularly thereafter. X-rays detect the presence of black lung disease, formally known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, linked to the inhalation of coal dust.
Miners diagnosed with black lung may be eligible for transfers to mine areas with lower concentrations of coal dust without a loss of pay. Victims may not be discriminated against or dismissed due to partial black lung disability. Coal miners, unable to work due to total disability from black lung or other work-related injuries or illnesses, are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits and in some cases, can pursue damage claims.
You have the right to know about the presence of chemicals, noise, toxic substances and other hazards in your workplace and what employers are required to do to keep you informed and safe at work. This may include air or noise monitoring, safety training and the issuance of protective gear.
An attorney can answer specific questions and provide in-depth information about miner health rights, safety issues and legal remedies for injured workers.
Seek legal counsel
Anyone hurt on the job (or the survivors of anyone killed) in a West Virginia coal mining operation should speak with an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible to understand what legal rights exist.
First, a claim should be filed for workers’ compensation, which is normally the exclusive legal remedy against an employer for a work-related injury regardless of who was at fault. (If the miner has developed “black lung” or pneumoconiosis from coal dust, federal Black Lung benefits may be available.)
However, if a West Virginia employer injures or causes the death of an employee with “deliberate intention,” then the worker or his or her survivors may be able to sue the employer in addition to a workers’ comp claim. The employer’s negligence or recklessness is not enough to trigger the deliberate-intention exception to workers’ compensation being the exclusive remedy.
In addition to workers’ compensation, a knowledgeable work injury lawyer will investigate the incident to determine whether a third-party personal injury lawsuit against someone other than the employer may be warranted. For example, if the manufacturer of heavy mining equipment put out a faulty or dangerous product, that company may be liable; or if negligent maintenance was done on a motor vehicle used in coal operations and the negligence caused injury, that service provider could be responsible.
A West Virginia law firm like Charleston’s Johnstone & Gabhart, LLP, can answer all legal questions related to coal mining injuries, diseases and fatalities.