Regulators need tougher tools to go after coal operators who thumb their noses at health and safety laws, putting miners at risk, the nation's top mine-safety official said during a trip to Kentucky this week.
In addition, miners need a better voice in safety oversight so they know they won't face problems for reporting concerns, said Joseph A. Main, head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"If we're going to change the mining culture, miners have to be able to feel comfortable about having a voice to speak out about the conditions they're working in ... without fear of retribution and retaliation," Main said during an interview.
He met with coal miners, widows of miners killed on the job, coal company officials and state regulators during a trip to Kentucky on Thursday and Friday.
Several other top MSHA officials attended a meeting in Barbourville in which Main talked with miners and widows, said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington lawyer who took part.
It was a rare chance for miners and widows to speak directly with the nation's top mine regulator, said Oppegard, who formerly worked for MSHA and now represents miners and widows in disputes with coal companies.
The private meeting was wide-ranging by all accounts, including discussion of poor safety practices.
Many miners are reluctant to exercise their right to report safety issues for fear of retaliation by companies, said Charles Scott Howard of Letcher County, a miner for 32 years.
"They're not going to make waves anyway because they've got families to feed," said Howard, who attended the meeting.
Howard hasn't been afraid to raise safety concerns but has faced retaliation by his employer, Cumberland River Coal, for filing seven claims in five years, said Oppegard, his attorney.
Oppegard said he told MSHA officials the agency needed to encourage the designation of miners' representatives to travel with regulators during inspections.
And the law needs to be changed so only hourly employees — not supervisors — may be named as representatives, Oppegard said.
Coal companies at times have thwarted the value of having a miners' representative — who can be an independent safety advocate — by putting supervisors in that role, reducing the chance a rank-and-file miner would get to take part during an inspection, Oppegard said.
Main said after the meeting that he has pushed to educate miners on their rights to report safety concerns and stepped up use of a process in which MSHA seeks to require a coal operator to give back a job to a miner who alleges he was fired for reporting a safety problem.
MSHA pursued nine such temporary reinstatement cases from October 2007 to September 2009, but the number increased to 48 from October 2009 to September, Main told Congress this week.
Still, Congress needs to improve whistle-blower protections for miners, Main said.
"They just don't believe the full protections are there" if they report safety concerns, he said.
Main met separately Friday with 50 coal industry representatives, said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
Coal companies have a duty under the law to operate safe mines, and while many try to do so, others don't, Main said.
The mind-set among some operators — in effect their business model — is to place coal production over safety, Main said.
Those operators might think that cutting corners boosts profits, but that approach will fail eventually, killing miners and bringing repercussions for the entire industry, Main said.
Before an April 2010 explosion killed 29 men at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia, the company had a culture aimed at maximizing production while thwarting safety inspectors, and it ended in disaster, Main said.
After the blast, MSHA began targeting for special inspections mines with a history of compliance problems or other potential red flags.
The agency also has been more aggressive about placing mines under increased scrutiny for having a potential pattern of violations.
The agency needs better tools, however, including subpoena power and stiffer criminal penalties, Main said.
One particular concern is mine supervisors or employees notifying workers underground that inspectors are coming to check for problems. That allows companies to quickly fix or hide safety problems, Main said.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, and others introduced a bill nearly a year ago that would make it a felony to give advance notice of a mine inspection.
Miller noted this week that it was common for supervisors at Upper Big Branch, the Massey mine where the explosion occurred almost two years ago, to tell miners underground that inspectors were on the way.
"As we have seen with the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy, illegal advance notice of an inspection puts miners' lives in the cross hairs," Miller said in a statement.
The House has not acted on the proposal.
Kentucky led the nation in coal mining deaths in 2011, with eight of the country's 21 fatalities.
Main said he thinks the industry could be death-free, but it would take more work.
"I think what we have to do as an industry is just never be satisfied with where we're at," he said. "We have to constantly look at how we can do better."
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.