Coal Mine Official Pleads Guilty

One of the main officials of a large West Virginia Coal Company recently pled guilty to fraud charges in connection with an April 2010 coal mine explosion that killed several workers at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. According to the federal charges, Gary May, the superintendent of the mine, made changes to the mine’s ventilation system during federal inspections in order to deceive inspectors.

As we know very well from our own practice, workplace explosions are one of the most devastating on-the-job injuries that can occur. Coal mines, power plants, steel mills and other large facilities handle a great deal of combustible chemicals, and they need to have proper “process safety” procedures in place to make sure that disasters do not happen.

In recent years, we have represented the families of several workers who were either killed or seriously burned in explosions at local steel mills. In those cases, the explosions occurred either because proper safety practices were not being followed or because equipment was in poor condition.

It is hard to understand why some of these disasters happen when large companies usually have entire safety departments that are supposed to be dedicated to preventing such accidents. Companies often say that safety is their top priority but they need to act like safety is important, not just say it is important. Too often, the pressures of work cause people to cut corners in order to get work done faster, and in doing so they sacrifice safety.

When workers are injured on the job, they obviously have a right to file claims against the people who caused their injuries. If the fault lies with the employee’s own company, the only rights they have are to worker’s compensation benefits. If, however, the injured worker is a contractor on the premises of another company which is at fault, then the worker has much broader rights to recover compensation for pain and suffering and other damages.