Keep ‘red hats’ safe in mines

Mine Safety and Health Administration head David Zatezalo could not ask for a better road map of where he should take the agency this year. It is part of MSHA’s report on mine fatalities during 2017.

As reported, the coal mine death toll last year was 15, up sharply from the eight in 2016. Eight of the 2017 fatalities were in West Virginia.

A striking aspect of the MSHA report is that the vast majority involved inexperienced miners. Of the eight deaths nationwide during the first half of the year, six were of miners with less than a year on the job. One other was of a worker with less than a year at the mine where he perished. Accidents during the second half of the year remained under investigation, with reports not yet available.

MSHA analysts will want to look deeper into accident reports before coming to conclusions about lack of experience and, perhaps, training being a factor in safety. The initial impression is that time in the mines makes a difference, however.

Rookie miners are called “red hats” because during their first year of work, they are required to wear red hard hats while on the job. After passing that 12-month test, they are permitted to use black headgear. Clearly, those in the mining industry understand the value of training and on-the-job experience. But is enough being done to protect rookies against falling victim to their relatively small knowledge bases?

That is a question Zatezalo, a Wheeling native, and others at MSHA should be asking. The followup query should be whether additional training is needed to keep beginning miners safe.

After the fatality report was issued, Zatezalo issued a statement emphasizing that his agency’s “focus is on ensuring that every miner is able to return safely to their loved ones at the end of every shift.” He specified that education and training are among MSHA officials’ considerations.

Good. With the “war on coal” by former President Barack Obama suspended by President Donald Trump, some coal companies may be hiring new employees. Narrowing the risk gap between them and experienced miners should be a priority.