These deaths are causing some to question the safety records of mines where workers are not in the miner’s union.
In January 2006, an explosion inside the Sago Mine in Upshur County left 12 coal miners dead.
A few weeks later, two miners died after a conveyor belt caught fire at the Aracoma Alma Mine in Logan County.
And last week, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County resulted in the nation’s worst mine disaster in almost 40 years.
All three mines had one thing in common: the miners who worked there were not members of the miner’s union.
Pat McGinley is a law professor at West Virginia University.
"I think the obvious evidence in the last few years is that currently it’s more dangerous to work in non-union mines than union mines," he said.
"The tragedies at Sago, and the Aracoma mine and the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah are stark examples of this."
McGinley says changes need to be made to current mine safety laws, to improve safety and enforcement.
“Every violation that puts a miner’s life at risk is serious, even if it only goes on for an hour,” he said.
“They should not be tolerated.”
Tony Oppegard is a former mine safety prosecutor in Kentucky and represents coal miners and their families in safety litigation.
He also says a union mine is a safer mine.
“I would say that there is no question in my mind that if this Massey mine had been a union mine, there is no way that they would have racked up 50 unwarrantable failure violations last year,” he said.
“The union wouldn’t have tolerated it. They would not have tolerated repeated violations of the ventilation system for instance, because that would be exposing their union brothers to harm.”
Oppegard says in non-union mines, anyone who makes safety complaints takes a risk of getting fired.
But West Virginia Coal Association Senior Vice President Chris Hamilton says there is no evidence to show union mines are safer.
“Many of the protections that are afforded to miners today are done so without respect to whether or not a mine is unionized or not,” he said.
“I would submit there’s not another industrial worker in all America that enjoys the protections that today’s coal miners do.”
Hamilton says the mining industry is much safer than it used to be, but still has a long way to go to eliminate all safety problems.
“The task or challenge of trying to improve mine safety to a realistic zero accident rate is never-ending, it requires constant attention by workers, owners, alike,” he said.
“I sincerely question whether a mine that’s unionized has a better safety record or potential for a better safety record than a mine that’s union free.”
Tony Oppegard says workers at non-union mines can report any misconduct or safety concerns through a provision of the Federal Mine Safety Law that involves designating a representative of the miners.
“The miners at a particular mine can designate anybody they choose as their representative. All they need is the signature of two or more miners. It could be an outside representative,” he said.
“Typically it’s another miner. What it does is it gives that representative the right to travel with federal mine inspectors anytime they come to the mine.”
But Oppegard says there are few mines in Appalachia that have representative of miners.
Oppegard says the Mine Safety and Health Administration hasn’t done enough to promote this aspect of the law.