By CHARLES M. JOHNSTONE II

CHARLESTON -- While it may seem hard to believe, we are rapidly approaching the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, the single largest U.S. coal mining disaster of the last 40 years.

The accident, which killed 29 miners and injured two others at the West Virginia-based facility, resulted in not only a flood of litigation, but also in massive safety changes across the mining industry.

To illustrate, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration authorized the creation of an internal review team in the immediate aftermath of the fatal event to analyze its actions in the time leading up to the explosion and to offer recommendations moving forward.

"The internal review was designed to identify shortcomings so that we, as an agency, could take necessary actions to improve mine safety and health," said the assistant secretary of labor for the MSHA. "The result was one of the most comprehensive internal reviews in MSHA history, and the most extensive improvements at the agency in decades."

Indeed, the internal review team eventually came up with 100 recommendations for the MSHA to implement in order to improve mine safety across the U.S.

In recent developments, the MSHA has announced that all 100 of these recommendations were implemented by the end of December, and that all specific timetables and deadlines established for implementing each recommendation were met.

It should be noted, however, that the MSHA began implementing the recommendations well ahead of their formal publication, establishing a "number of administrative, organizational and regulatory reforms in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy."

Some of the corrective actions taken by the MSHA include:

* Revising/developing over 40 policy directives

* Holding over 20 separate training sessions for agency staff to examine the issues raised by the internal audit

* Establishing a centralized system designed to monitor the implementation/enforcement of all agency directives and policies

* Introducing a tracking system to monitor re-training of inspectors

* Dividing the southern West Virginia coal district into two separate districts

"These corrective actions are part of MSHA's ongoing efforts to improve health and safety conditions in the nation's mines so that miners can go to work, do their jobs and return home to their loved ones safe and healthy at the end of every shift," said the assistant secretary of labor.

The MSHA claims that these corrective actions have already proved effective as there are now considerably fewer mines with chronic-violation records, while the lowest injury and fatality rates were recorded in both 2011 and 2012.

Here's hoping this is the start of an enduring trend.

Charles M. "Sonny" Johnstone II is the managing partner of Johnston & Gabhart in Charleston. He has been practicing law in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky for more than 25 years.

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