- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

HARLAN, Ky. (AP) — In the coalfields of eastern Kentucky, it’s known as the hoot owl shift.

In those wee morning hours, while most people in this small town are sleeping, miners wearing hard hats, steel-toed boots and layers of black dust are still at work, deep underground.

With coal prices at record highs, mining companies have been pushing to increase production, adding overnight and weekend shifts and generating more overtime hours for miners who have some of the most grueling jobs in the country.

Industry groups and mine regulatory agencies are wondering whether fatigue could be a common factor in the sharp increase in the number of coal-mining deaths this year. So far this year, 33 coal miners have been killed on the job in the U.S., including 12 in January at the Sago Mine in West Virginia and five on May 20 at Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1. Last year, 22 coal miners were killed, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“It is something that needs to be looked at,” said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. “If we’re cranking out more production with the same number of employees, miners may be working six or seven days a week, instead of five, and potentially not getting enough rest.”

Companies went in search of experienced miners about three years ago when prices for Appalachian coal skyrocketed. The region’s coal is selling for as much as $64 a ton on the spot market, a threefold increase in three years.

Coal operators have been pressing miners to keep up the pace.

In a memo to employees in the fall, Massey Energy Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship caused a fuss by saying production is the top priority.

“If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal … you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” Mr. Blankenship wrote.

A week later, Mr. Blankenship sent employees another memo, saying safety is the company’s top priority.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said Appalachian coal production has increased by 2 percent in the past year. Kentucky miners produced an additional 4 million tons, raising the state’s total to 120 million tons. West Virginia produced an additional 5 million tons, raising the state’s total to nearly 156 million tons.

Kentucky’s mining industry also has hired about 2,000 more miners in the past two years, raising its total to about 14,800, not counting managers, engineers and support workers, said Carlos Cracraft, a labor market analyst in the Kentucky Workforce Development Cabinet. West Virginia has added about 3,000 miners.

Mr. Cracraft said the miners, who earn an average $18.35 an hour, are working an average 49.5 hours a week in Kentucky. That, he said, suggests that although some may have a typical 40-hour workweek, others may be on the job for 60 hours or more.

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