Mine Industry Tackles Drug Abuse Among Workers

Mining remains one of the nation's most hazardous jobs, and the dangers grow if workers are drinking or abusing drugs. The Mine Safety and Health Administration agency holds the first of a series of public hearings Monday as it tries to determine the extent of the problem throughout the mining industry.

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The pick-and-shovel days in the nation's mines are over. Much of the tasks have been automated. Even so, mining remains one of the nation's most hazardous jobs and the dangers grow if workers are drinking or abusing drugs. Today the Mine Safety and Health Administration agency holds the first of a series of public hearings as it tries to determine the extent of the problem throughout the mining industry. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

The numbers are small but telling. Reports from the Mine Safety and Health Administration list nine mining fatalities since 1995 in which alcohol or other substances seem to have played a major role in the death of a worker. Public hearings that will be held in seven states will focus in all types of mining, but it was an explosion in a Kentucky coal mine two years ago that prompted this investigation after authorities discovered marijuana at the accident site. LaJuana Wilcher, the head of the Kentucky agency overseeing mine safety, says the fatal accident also spurred Kentucky officials into action. For the past year, a task force has discussed whether to subject miners to mandatory drug tests.

Ms. LaJUANA WILCHER (Mine Safety Agency): Even if we can't perfectly quantify drug use in mines, we believe that there's enough going on that we should begin to take some steps to try to reduce that.

CORLEY: Hard to quantify perhaps because there's no requirement now for drug testing, and a miner who fails a test at one Kentucky mine can always be hired at another that doesn't test. So most of the evidence is anecdotal, and officials say most of the substances abused are prescription painkillers and marijuana. Federal regulators say the largest percentage of workers using illicit drugs and alcohol work in construction and mining. Kentucky's push for mandatory testing couldn't get a political sponsor. Steve Earle, a field director for the United Mine Workers, says no miner wants to work next to someone under the influence, but the proposed bill was too broad.

Mr. STEVE EARLE (United Mine Workers): Show us proof that drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace in the mining industry is worse than any other industry in this state. I said show me some numbers and they have yet to do that.

CORLEY: There are more than 600 mines in Kentucky's coal fields alone. Looking from a helicopter, the surface mines in the state's mountainous eastern terrain are plainly visible. Paris Charles, the head of Kentucky's Office of Mine Safety, points out the large sculpted surfaces, a sharp contrast to the mountains covered with the multi-colored red-and-yellow hue of changing tree leaves.

Mr. PARIS CHARLES (Kentucky Office of Mine Safety): Like over here on my bottom of my left right here, all this ridge right here has been mined and reclaimed, and you can see where the trees were gone, but the trees are starting to come back.

CORLEY: We're traveling to Hazard, Kentucky, a longtime coal mining town near the Virginia border. It's home to the Elkhorn number 3 and number 4 underground mines run by Perry County Coal. Workers begin their shifts by walking into a mine shaft where the ceiling drops lower at every step. One miner urges caution.

Unidentified Man: There'll be a lot of tripping hazards and things. You'll just have to keep an eye out.

CORLEY: The shaft in the number 4 mine is 500 feet deep, the work space three miles back into the mountain. A battery-operated low steel wagon is the miners' bus to the work site. Clacking like an old-time roller coaster, it bounces through mud and water along the rails the mine workers have built. As the ceiling drops even lower, the riders tilt their heads.

While not mandated by law, Perry County Coal, like other large companies in Kentucky, requires its workers to take random drug tests. Personnel director Paul Matney says tests are also conducted if there's an accident.

Mr. PAUL MATNEY (Perry County Coal): This generation of coal miners in eastern Kentucky is the most productive, safest generation that we've ever had in the coal mines. Now if we're going to continue to make the mines a safer place, then we need to do everything we can in all areas, and one of the areas we need to look at is drug abuse.

(Soundbite of machinery)

CORLEY: In the work section of Elkhorn 4, a three-man work crew gets ready to unleash the continuous miner, the machine which rips into coal seams like a long steel ravenous snake. One man sits on his haunches punching buttons on a small control box and watches as a huge device breaks further into the wall, spitting coal back into other sections of the machine. Safety director Paris Charles says workers depend on each other in the mines, and there's no room for substance abuse.

Mr. CHARLES: You can see the confined spaces that you're working in, the large equipment as we go, you know, so there's not any room for margin of error. I mean, you've got to be on your toes at all times.

CORLEY: Mine operators who test say they have fewer accidents. They say small mines which don't test can become havens for those who work under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Kentucky mining authorities say they're considering offering companies incentives like reducing worker compensation premiums if they require drug testing.

Until recently, the United Mine Workers Association had no comment about the possibility of the Kentucky task force recommending drug testing, but the union's Steve Earle says now there are concerns. Earle says workers who test positive for drug or alcohol abuse should have treatment options under any drug testing regulation.

Mr. EARLE: If someone has a problem with substance abuse, then I think our goal ought to be to get that person some help and get them back in the work force, and I think we're all winners when we do that.

CORLEY: That's a message Earle says he'll bring both to the hearings held by the Mine Safety and Health Administration and to Kentucky's mining task force as it wraps up its meetings this week. Those sessions may help finally turn the anecdotes about substance abuse in the thousands of mines across the country into fact and determine just how large a problem the mining industry faces.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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