CHARLESTON – Still without evidence that substance use is the reason for increasing coal mine accidents, West Virginia lawmakers are strengthening the coal miner drug testing law they passed eight years ago.
Since lawmakers passed the law in 2012, pointing to coal mine accidents as a reason, nearly 1,900 coal miners have had their certificates suspended.
Now, lawmakers are stiffening penalties for those who refuse tests or cheat, as well as penalties for those with alcohol or marijuana in their system.
There is no plan for what to do if a coal miner has a recommendation from a doctor to use medical marijuana.
West Virginia passed a medical marijuana law in 2017, although that law has yet to be implemented.
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During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 635, sponsored by Senator Randy Smith, R- Tucker, with a number of coal mining provisions.
One of those was to increase the suspension period for testing positive for alcohol or marijuana from three months to six months. The bill was supported by both union officials and the coal industry.
After lawmakers pass laws, state agencies write rules that describe in more detail how that law will be implemented. The rule on drug testing provision of Senate Bill 635 is now making its way through the Legislature, and has passed both the rule-making review and the House of Delegates energy committees.
The rule, in addition to upping the penalties for positive marijuana and alcohol tests, also now includes a provision increasing the suspension period to 18 months for those who refuse or are caught cheating.
During committee meetings, some lawmakers have raised questions about medical marijuana, but none have proposed amendments to plan for the implementation of West Virginia’s medical marijuana law.
Sen. Smith said there are no plans to amend the rule.
“We can change the law or the rules as a Legislature, but if a company still decides to go with zero-tolerance, we can’t make them change their drug policy,” he said. “I’m sure it will be looked at once it becomes legal, but right now it’s zero tolerance.”
According to the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, as of Jan. 21, 1,879 people have lost their mining certifications since the law’s implementation in 2012. A total of 565 people failed pre-employment drug and alcohol screenings.
The number one reason was prescription drugs, followed by marijuana. Marijuana can be detected in testing for up to weeks or months, depending on the type of test.
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In an interview at the West Virginia Office of Coal Miners’ Health, Safety and Training in Charleston, Director Eugene White, and Administrator Danny Cook, said they are constantly working to raise awareness of the law at coal mines throughout the state. They distribute fliers and stickers.
“Say no to Drugs and Alcohol,” reads a flier. “Failed drug and alcohol tests shall result in the loss of your mining certification.”
“Drugs/Alcohol+Coal Mining= Discharge...Injury...or Death,” read the stickers. “Getting high is not worth the risk.”
When miners who’ve lost their certificates call in, Cook provides them with the number to a statewide addiction helpline, 1-844-HELP4WV.
“Our main objective is number one remove that person from the industry, get them away from the coal mine, get them away from equipment,” White said. “Help them. Get them help. And that’s what we’re doing.”
They said that since the law passed, 571 people have gone through addiction treatment to have their license reinstated.
Even so, White conceded that just because their license was reinstated doesn’t mean they got their job back.
“That is not our call,” he said. “When a company discharges an employee for substance abuse, I very doubt it they’ll hire them back. I mean I don’t know, we don’t keep up with that.”
Safety inspectors give presentations that sometimes include information about the law. But they said the talks aren’t focused on early signs of an addiction problem.
“No, we’re not professionals in that part of that,” White said. “Now a lot of coal companies have in-house counseling available to assist and help but we don’t go out and try and do that. We’re not professionals. We do not have a counselor or a doctor that goes out.”
“The goal of our talks is awareness,” Cook added. “We’re not there to counsel them or to offer any treatment for them there. We’re not equipped for that.”
“It’s coal miner to coal miner is what we try to make it,” White added.
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Sen. Smith has worked in the coal industry for 40 years.
Often, miners say they failed for using an old prescription or their wife’s prescription for pain, Smith said.
Smith said that some older coal miners started taking pain pills for aches and pains related to their job, while he notices younger miners become addicted before those injuries occur.
“I don’t know how you separate the two,” he said.
Miners not showing up on drug test day and cheating have been big problems, according to Smith.
“They’re very creative,” he said. “They’re not dummies, that’s for sure. A lot of people will because these are good paying jobs, too. Most of them $50,000, $60,000 on up.”
He is currently a safety manager for Metikki Coal.
“If they have a problem and come to us, we’ll get them the help, but if they wait ’til they get caught, they don’t have that option,” he said.
But according to Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion and a retired UMWA official, people with addiction problems are often the last to know.
“Your family will know, your friends will know, your co-workers may even know,” he said. “But you don’t know if you’re that person with the problem. So companies I think need to do a better job of trying, not just with a poster on the wall that says ‘if you have a drug problem, come see with us, we’ll get you help.’ No I think you have to have meetings and I think you have to bring experts in and I think you need to talk to your employees if you truly care about your most precious resource, which is your employees.”
Caputo also said he knew many miners who became addicted after work-related injuries.
“I’ve seen good people that through no fault of their own became addicted to painkillers,” he said. “They maybe hurt their back at work or had a knee injury at work or whatever and got overprescribed opioids, and then when they quit getting them, they started kind of raiding their parents’ medicine cabinet, and then when they couldn’t get that anymore, they kind of went to the street. And they became addicts, through no fault of their own, in my opinion, and at the end of the day, they end up losing everything.”
He stressed that he understood the danger of working underground with someone under the influence.
“But there comes a point in time, I mean what do we do, we just throw them to the curb and then what happens?” he said. “Did we help anybody? Did we help society? Naw, I don’t think we did.”
He declined a request to find a coal miner who’d lost his certification to interview.
“I wouldn’t even ask them to do that because it’s very difficult,” he said. “It’s very difficult. I’ve watched grown men really just bawl like children when they get in this situation.”
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Officials at the Office of Coal Miners’ Health, Safety and Training gave anecdotal stories of substance use tied to accidents. But they still have no evidence that drugs are the main source of accidents in the coal mines.
“We don’t,” White said. “I mean there’s not that many cases where it comes out, that I’m aware of, that it’s actually substance abuse or alcohol caused it.”
A September 2018 audit found that mining accidents began to increase in West Virginia in 2013.
“My opinion, the coal industry is struggling right now,” White said. “People are scared... People are taking chances.”
And if the coal miner does think he might have a problem, he may not want to miss work to go to the doctor, they said.
“People that’s got jobs in the coal industry right now probably don’t want to miss work,” White said. “It’s tough out there right now. Forget the drugs. It’s just tough.”
There is also no evidence the law is reducing coal miner substance abuse.
Cook, administrator of the Office of Coal Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said it’s “hard to evaluate” whether the drug testing program is reducing miner drug use.
He said the first few years, about 300 people lost certifications each year. The average, over the eight years since implementation, is 237 people per year.
But Cook noted that employment numbers fluctuate, and many of the failed tests are pre-employment.
They also don’t know how many miners may have ended up overdosing after failing a drug test.
Coal miners do have the option to appeal the decision.
White said he didn’t have the number of appeals won by coal miners.
“I know we win way more than we lose,” he said.
Few show up with lawyers, they said.
“I mean they can’t afford it, they’ve lost their job,” White said.
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