Mine Safety Group Hears From NASCAR Driver

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After several highly-publicized mining disasters, the mining industry pledged to reform its safety practices. In seeking help, NASCAR answered. A former NASCAR driver was invited to speak at major meeting of mine safety engineers in West Virginia.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Leading members of the coal industry gathered this week to talk about safer ways of mining. After several highly publicized fatal accidents, the industry knows it will have to change its safety practices. New state and federal regulations are already on the way.

So for help and advice, the coal miners have turned to an unlikely source, NASCAR. It seems the people who brought you major league stockcar racing know a bit about deadly accidents.

NPR'S Nell Boyce reports from Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin says at first he was a little confused when one of his advisors on mine safety decided to put a call in to NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

Governor JOE MANCHIN (Democrat, West Virginia): I thought he was a fan like I am. (laughter) And maybe he had his favorite driver to bring down. But, really, when you think about it, it's tied in so beautifully, to bring those two together was brilliant.

BOYCE: The brilliant idea came from Davitt McAteer, who was the Clinton administration's top mine safety official.

Mr. DAVITT McATEER (Former Clinton Administration Mine Safety Official): NASCAR has gone through a change in their whole culture, and they've done it voluntarily, and they've done it because they had a disaster, had an accident. And that's a lesson we want to learn from.

BOYCE: At first glance, digging out rocks that's hundreds of feet underground may seem very different from whizzing around a racetrack. But these professions both have a unique culture, both are potentially very dangerous, and they both have had recent moments of reckoning.

For NASCAR, it was the death of racing icon Dale Earnhardt five years ago. For coal mining, it was the Sago mine disaster that killed 12 men in January. And racecar drivers and coal miners have responded in similar ways. For example, they're both taking a hard look at new technology. So NASCAR sent veteran driver, Brett Bodine, here to Wheeling to speak to hundreds of mining experts. Bodine says he was surprised by the assignment, but he also found it oddly appropriate, because he always used to bring up coal mining whenever people would ask him, don't you think racing is dangerous?

Mr. BRETT BODINE (NASCAR driver): And my response was, well, I don't think it is. And I said the people that work in coalmines, they probably don't think it's that dangerous, either. But I certainly wouldn't want to go in a coalmine, because I don't know anything about it.

BOYCE: So Bodine talked about what he does know, the changes NASCAR has made over the last few years. He rattled off a long list. New rules that require certain kinds of seat belts and fire protection gear, and totally new technologies, like a so-called soft barrier around the track to minimize the impact of crashes.

Mr. BODINE: And I'm very pleased to say in the last five years we have zero deaths due to accidents on the racetrack, through all of NASCAR's efforts.

BOYCE: That's a record the mining industry would love to have. At the conference, the experts debated how to make mines safer. Everything from requiring more realistic safety drills to building underground shelters that could keep trapped miners alive. One person stood up and asked Bodine, what should the mining industry be doing? The man from NASCAR had a simple answer.

Mr. BODINE: Take a bad situation, analyze it, look at it hard, and be prepared to make some very tough decisions to change the way you do business.

BOYCE: With that, he had to race to the airport to catch a flight to Phoenix where NASCAR is holding a big event this weekend. The coalmining executive stayed behind to put his advice into action.

Nell Boyce, NPR News, Wheeling, West Virginia.

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