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Safeguarding Coal Miners

Wegman Named to Lead $48M Fund

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An explosion 1,000 feet underground in a West Virginia mine in 2010 killed 29 coal miners. David Wegman was selected to co-direct a $48 million fund that will be used to investigate life-saving advances for coal miners.

By Karen Angelo

It was the deadliest U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years – an explosion 1,000 feet underground in a West Virginia mine that killed 29 coal miners. 

An investigation found that Massey Energy, the company that owned the mine at the time of the Upper Branch mine explosion in 2010, failed to control accumulations of explosive methane gas and coal dust. A $209 million settlement reached between the federal government and the new owner of the mine, Alpha Natural Resources, included the establishment of a $48 million foundation that will investigate life-saving advances for coal miners. 

Prof. Emeritus David Wegman of Work Environment is one of three experts selected to lead the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health. He will serve on the board of directors with Keith A. Heasley, professor in the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at West Virginia University and Michael E. Karmis, professor and director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech. 

Universities and non-profits will be eligible for the research funding from the foundation, an independent entity that will operate without involvement from Alpha or the U.S. Attorney’s Office. 

Wegman says that he wants to bring broader perspectives to the table – so, in addition to current researchers, his team will also seek out experts in health issues such as musculoskeletal disorders and heart disease as well as those with expertise in public policy, organizational management and detection technologies. 

“We can make a significant leap forward in health and safety by looking at the issues miners face from different perspectives,” says Wegman. “We may not be able to eliminate risks, but there is a lot of room for improvement to intervene on all fronts and improve the quality of life for the workers.” 

Wegman, who was dean of the School of Health and Environment and the founding chair of the Department of Work Environment, served as chair of the 1996 U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s Advisory Committee on the elimination of pneumoconiosis among coal-mine workers and currently serves on the National Academy of Science Committee on Mine Safety: Essential Components of Self-Escape. 

He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1966 and a master’s of science in occupational health from Harvard School of Public Health in 1972. He is a former member of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Standards Advisory Committee on metal working fluids. In addition to his work at UMass Lowell, he also serves as adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.