Concerns raised over coal mining deaths in 2017

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HARRISON COUNTY, W.Va (WDTV) - A local representative of the United Mine Workers of America says he's alarmed by the surge in coal miners' deaths in 2017, and that it sends a signal that more enforcement of regulations is needed.

"I believe that safety should always be at the forefront when it comes to coal mining," Mike Caputo, vice president of International District 31, said. "And the [state] legislature should always do more to increase the safety of coal miners to make sure they can come home again at the end of their shifts."

Workplace deaths in the coal mining industry reached 15 in 2017, a year after they hit a record low of eight.

Eight of the 15 recorded deaths occurred in West Virginia.

Caputo, who is also a member of the House of Delegates, stressed that he doesn't attribute the deaths to any specific rollback of regulations. But he has grown frustrated at the lack of legislative action.

"We were looking toward proximity devices, which will shut down the equipment if the miner gets in harm's way," Caputo explained. "That action has been delayed a little bit in West Virginia. I don't like that."

According to the Associated Press, eight of the coal mining deaths involved hauling vehicles.

Caputo also expressed frustration with the Trump administration's efforts to undo regulations on the industry.

Officials with the Mine Safety and Health Administration have indicated they will consider changing rules designed to protect coal miners from coal and rock dust, which can cause black lung.

"The new head of MSHA, that was appointed by President Trump, his safety record is less than to be desired," Caputo said, referring to David Zatezalo, the former coal company executive who faced many questions about his own safety record during his confirmation process.

Most of the deaths in 2017 occurred before his appointment late last year.

In response to the new MSHA data, Zatezalo issued the following statement:

"President Trump is strongly committed to the health and safety of America's miners. At MSHA, our focus is on ensuring that every miner is able to return safely to their loved ones at the end of every shift. To ensure the health and safety of miners, MSHA will continue to vigorously emphasize safety enforcement, technology, education and training, and compliance and technical assistance."

Meanwhile, the metal and non-mental industry saw an all-time low of 13 workplace deaths in 2017, according to the Department of Labor.