February 6, 2012

Tomblin expects lawmakers to OK miner drug testing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Thursday he believes lawmakers will quickly come to agreement and pass his proposed mine safety legislation, including a provision that calls for mandatory drug testing of coal miners.

Safety is paramount in a hazard-rich environment like a coal mine, Tomblin told the West Virginia Coal Association, “and to have somebody who’s impaired there is just completely unacceptable.”

Substance abuse is a pervasive statewide problem, but Tomblin says the substance of choice varies with geography — meth in the Kanawha Valley, street drugs like heroin and cocaine in northern counties and prescription drugs in the southern coalfields.

His bill would require pre-employment testing, and companies would have to notify the state of failures. Workers who get clean could reapply and be retested later, the governor said, “but I can see no sense in training people for jobs they can’t pass a drug test to do.”

He believes coal companies could fill 1,000 vacant positions in southern West Virginia if they could get applicants who could pass their testing requirements.

The bill would also require operators to tell the state when workers are discharged for violating a company drug policy, even if the violation was simply refusal to be tested. And employees themselves would have 30 days to notify the state if they’re convicted of a drug-related criminal act.

Industry attorney Erin Magee called the bill “a great start” in a briefing for operators this week.

She said drug abuse problems in the state’s mines are “fairly rampant,” and the bill helps companies get a handle on how to address it. Some have drug policies, but many others don’t.

If the governor’s bill passes, testing can be done “in almost all situations,” she said, including after accidents.

But Magee said there are issues the bill doesn’t address, such as how to handle employees who are taking “cocktails” of legal prescription drugs or those abusing methadone, and how to test for substances such as the legal “incense” that people are now smoking instead of marijuana. It’s also vague about the specifics on how to conduct the testing.

The language also raises questions about whether operators can test office staff and others who don’t have mining certifications, she said.

Vice President Chris Hamilton said the Coal Association is generally supportive of the legislation but is concerned about the proposed July 1 implementation date. He says that’s not enough time to get supervisors, miners and others fully trained.

It also worries about the percentage of people who would be randomly tested.

“We think 50 percent’s actually way too high,” Hamilton said, suggesting that 15 percent would align with other states’ practices.

The effectiveness of random screening is not in the number of people who are actually tested, he said. “It’s that constant threat of being subjected to a random test at any time.”

But the nation’s largest coal miner union says testing should be universal.

No union member wants to work alongside an impaired employee, said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.

“That includes supervisors, contractors, inspectors, truck drivers, upper management and anyone else who may come onto mine property,” he said. “So, we think that the legislation should require all who come on to mine property to be subject to drug testing, not just hourly employees of the mine operator.”

He says every UMWA member working in West Virginia is already subject to pre-employment drug testing and testing under other circumstances. The union wants those who do have problems to get an opportunity for treatment.

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