HAZARD, Ky. (Dec. 8, 2004) – The nation’s top mine safety official today joined with state officials, coal industry leaders and miners from Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia at a summit in the fight against drug and alcohol use in coal mines.
David Dye, acting assistant secretary of labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), said the Tri-State Drug Summit “was an important start in raising the awareness level concerning these problems in the mining industry. I am confident that this event will lead to productive results.”
The first-of-its-kind summit, held at Hazard Community and Technical College, drew approximately 180 people from government, the mining industry and labor. Organizers had expected about 120 to attend. Kentucky hosted the event in co-sponsorship with MSHA and the states of Virginia and West Virginia.
The issue of substance abuse in mines cuts across two of Governor Ernie Fletcher’s priorities: improving worker safety and battling rampant trafficking of drugs, including prescription narcotics and homemade methamphetamine.
Fletcher created the Office of Drug Control Policy (ODCP) in September to spearhead the anti-drug effort. That followed a series of public meetings conducted by Lieutenant Governor Steve Pence.
Any worker under the influence of drugs or alcohol poses a threat to safety on the job. The potential for calamity is magnified in mining, which requires workers who are well-trained and alert.
The summit kicked off an MSHA public education and outreach campaign to warn of the perils of substance abuse in the nation’s mines.
Mining industry officials, mine operators and coal miners have reported that drug abuse in mines is widespread. No accurate data concerning substance abuse in mines is available, however.
Many mine operators voluntarily conduct pre-employment drug screening and random, on-the-job drug testing.
“But neither Kentucky nor MSHA currently has the authority to test miners for drugs or alcohol, even in the case of a serious accident or fatality,” said LaJuana S. Wilcher, secretary of the Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet (EPPC). “All we have to work with at present is anecdotal information and occasional toxicological data that becomes available through other means.”
Wilcher said the EPPC will work closely with ODCP in addressing drug use in mines.
“Everybody is in agreement that this is really important. We are shining a light on a problem that’s been either hidden or not discussed for a long time,” the secretary said.
Kentucky is endeavoring, through plans for a Mine Substance Abuse Task Force, to amass hard data to determine the extent of the problem and to serve as the basis for statutory or regulatory action.
In addition to anecdotal information from miners and mine operators, the cabinet’s own mine inspectors have found some evidence of marijuana and alcohol use or possession on mine sites, Secretary Wilcher said. Two such cases, filed by the cabinet’s Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, are pending before the state Mine Safety Review Commission.
Topics discussed at the summit included ways in which government, the industry, labor and mining communities can get the maximum benefit from anti-drug education, outreach and enforcement.
Susan Bush, commissioner of the Department for Natural Resources, said the summit exceeded expectations for attendance, content and results. “It sets the course for the Mine Substance Abuse Task Force and for identifying opportunities for local, state and federal agencies to support the coal industry in keeping America’s mines drug and alcohol free,” Bush stated.
Other participants included Paris Charles, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing; Frank Linkous, chief of the Division of Mines in the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy; C.A. Phillips, deputy director of the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training; and Ray McKinney, acting director of the MSHA Southern Appalachian Region.