January 24, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

On April 5, 2010, a massive explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, killed 29 miners. Last week, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators briefed victims’ relatives on what MSHA thinks happened at the mine. (MSHA’s official final report is not expected for another 2-3 months, though.) NPR’s Howard Berkes reports that the investigators’ presentation “pointed to a tragedy that could have been prevented if the Upper Big Branch coal mine had complied with federal safety regulations.”

In a related piece, Berkes explains some of the safety systems that are designed to prevent disastrous coal-mine explosions – if they’re working properly. Ventilation systems disperse methane gas, which is common in coal mines. Water sprayers help cool and extinguish sparks that arise when cutting tools hit hard rock, and they also control coal dust, both for the health of workers’ lungs and to avoid having explosive dust floating in the air. At Upper Big Branch, inadequate ventilation was a persistent problem, and sprayers were apparently malfunctioning.

After presenting findings to family members, MSHA officials held a press conference. The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. summarizes their allegations:

Mining bits on the longwall machine were worn out, exposing steel shafts that could easily spark when they hit a piece of rock embedded in the coal seam. Key water sprays were missing or inoperable, leaving miners without an important protection against methane ignitions.

Mine operators ignored repeated warnings from their own workers to spread more crushed stone, or rock dust, to prevent coal dust that had built up along miles of underground tunnels from providing fuel for an explosion.

Federal prosecutors are pursuing a criminal investigation of the diasters, and have asked MSHA to delay holding public hearings or releasing transcripts of witness interviews.

In other news:

Calgary Herald: A University of British Columbia study finds that Canadians who work nights have almost double the injury risk of those who work during the day – and among nighttime workers, women’s risk is more pronounced.

The Guardian: A coalition of environmental groups in China has issued a report that gives Apple low marks on supply-chain transparency.

Boston Globe: A study just published in the European Heart Journal found that the most sedentary participants were more likely to have risk factors for heart disease than those who spent the least time being sedentary. People whose work involves sitting for hours each day should aim to take multiple short breaks to get up and move.

Medical News Today: A study appearing in PLoS Pathogens found that mice placed in inhalation chambers and exposed to aerosols containing prions (the agents of mad cow disease and other illnesses) developed disease after brief exposures. The researchers recommend that slaughterhouses and other workplaces where prions might be present improve their safety procedures to guard against airborne prion transmission.

New York Times: The US accounting industry surpasses others when it comes to allowing flexible work schedules that help employees balance their work and family lives.

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