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Spike TV's show Coal provides a window into the practices of the Cobalt coal mine in McDowell County, West Virginia. The series clearly presents the pressure to bring the coal to the surface and produce enough revenue to stay in business while demonstrating the dangers of traditional coal mining in dark, wet, and cramped spaces with the ever present danger of cave-ins in the physical spaces of life underground. There are also very real dangers facing the coal miners themselves, such as the ongoing possibility of coal dust explosions and exposure to pneumoconiosis or black lung disease; realities for all those who enter the mine each day.
In my work with clients in mines, this show causes much discussion—much concern. Safety issues evident in the first few episodes raise questions about the real effort to keep each other safe. An operator moved equipment, crushing the power cable and nearly hitting a fellow miner. Miners I work with point out that the miners moving the equipment should have engaged in safe behaviors such as communicating with and making visual contact with everyone in the area to avoid potential line-of-fire dangers. In this same episode loose roof material was pulled down, using a pick hammer, nearly crushing two miners. If putting safety first is a concern, miners should pull down the loose roof material using a long bar in a process called “barring down.” Additional concerns noted from this episode were the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) including safety glasses, hearing protection, and respirators, which are typically standard in most mines. Supervisors in the Coal series say “Let’s work safe today” but there appears to be no focus on establishing and maintaining safe behaviors, in fact a dangerous disregard for all—even when it is clear that, as the TV camera captures, there are strong relationships and respect among the miners on the show.
Telling workers that he wants them to work safely today is likely a true expression of the mine supervisor’s feeling. He certainly does not want anyone hurt, he doesn’t want a lawsuit, he doesn’t want a work stoppage, or grieving families, and certainly not unwanted publicity. The owners of Cobalt Coal have personal friends, maybe even family working underground. I do not doubt for a moment that they truly care about the people as well as their company. They also care about production. We see a clear relationship between the amount of coal produced, the behavior that is required to produce the coal, and the likelihood that the company will remain profitable enough to stay open for another week. (This coal mine, in that respect, is different from large operations in which production quotas are established to maintain and increase large profit levels- not merely keep the doors open.)
The words “let’s work safe today” though sincere, are just words; not tied to behaviors to ensure that safe acts occurred. Unless the miners practice safe procedures and are reinforced for using them, safe behavior (particularly if it is more difficult or slower than unsafe behavior) is unlikely to occur in the mine. Grabbing the closest tool to bring down loose –rock was the quickest and easiest, though not the safest, thing to do. And if the proper tool was not available, the safer thing to do was not available to the miner. Commitment to safety must be linked from the behaviors of the owner (providing procedures, tools, and reinforcement systems) to the supervisors to the individuals engaged in the work.
This reality show is most upsetting to my colleagues in the mines because it makes light of the very real acts of caring, the daily effort of miners everywhere to stay safe and keep their fellow miners safe as well. They still make production targets, but never at the expense of life and limb. As this reality show continues over the next few weeks, I hope to see some changes in their strategies and an increase in safe behaviors. If not, there is nothing to feel about this ‘reality show’ but extreme sadness about the carelessness shown for the human life at hand.
Editor's note: At the end of the first show, the mine owners were informed that they were in trouble for violating safety guidelines. While the immediacy with which this was brought to their attention is good, the fundamental issue is, how many like-minded, eager and friendly coal mine owners are out there doing just this again…making a priority of trying to keep the operations going over safe practices. Image via TrinityDC.edu
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