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Coal mining is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. In 2007, nine West Virginia miners lost their lives, and over 920 injuries with lost time were reported (West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training). Accidents in the coal mining industry happen to workers mining underground, at surface mines, in quarries and in preparation facilities, although statistically the underground miner has the best chance of being injured or killed on the job.
Causes of Coal Mine Accidents
Coal mining accidents have a variety of causes. Methane explosions are the most dramatic coal mining accidents and therefore receive more media coverage. Far more miners are injured or killed, however, in accidents involving coal stockpile collapse, longwall shield collapse, falls, burns, electrocution, improperly functioning equipment and coal miner's pneumoconiosis or silicosis. In addition to the inherent dangers of mining, failure to provide or maintain health and safety equipment and procedures, as well as inadequate training, contribute to the number and severity of injuries sustained by miners.
Results of Coal Mine Accidents
After serious injuries occur, miners and their families face a number of challenges, including significant medical bills. The costs of surgery, hospital stays, doctor visits, medication, physical therapy and, in the case of amputation, prostheses can mount into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Transportation to out-of-area specialists and accommodations once there can add up quickly and put additional strain on the victim and family. If the injury is such that the miner is no longer able to work in the mine but is capable of other types of work, retraining or additional education is necessary. With injuries that are more serious, a miner may be disabled to an extent that he or she will never work again.
The emotional impact of being injured can be devastating and require long-term counseling. The effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) vary from person to person, but it is reasonable to believe that a victim of a significant or life-changing accident will require professional treatment. In a profession such as coal mining, quite often it has been a family occupation going back several generations. The realization that the occupation you have always identified yourself with is no longer available to you can present a serious emotional challenge. Psychological counseling and peer-group support are important tools for helping with the overall healing process.
The Law on Coal Mine Accidents
In several states, including West Virginia, employers that are covered by worker's compensation insurance are immune from liability for most injuries that their employees receive at work. This immunity limits the injured worker to the level of benefits outlined by the worker's compensation system. In the case of deliberate intent, however, West Virginia law overrides the usual immunity and allows an injured worker to sue for personal injury damages. A case of this type is referred to as a Mandolidis case and can be applied when an employer knowingly disregards safety regulations and is aware of the potential for injury but does nothing to correct the unsafe conditions. Attorneys who specialize in personal injury cases have successfully represented injured coal miners and the families of coal miners who have died on the job to collect damages from mine owners above and beyond what worker's compensation allowed.