Hires train with veterans in Consol mines

| Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Chad Pethtel had never touched a continuous miner machine before Wednesday.

By Thursday he was guiding one straight into the Pittsburgh No. 8 coal seam, 800 feet underground.

The 70-ton, sedan-sized machine scraped off wet, black chunks of coal, then stopped to reinforce the roof. It drilled rods eight feet up into the earth above to help hold the flaky sheets of rock into one stable ceiling.

Pethtel was at the controls, with a mentor by his side, the whole time.

“There's so many safety measures put on the machine — it could get away from you and at any time — but it's pretty much like a video game,” said Pethtel, 33, of Carolina in Marion County, W.Va. “Just know what you're doing and make sure you keep your thumbs in the right place at the right time.”

Pethtel is a foreman trainee at Blacksville No. 2 Mine and one of about 550 Consol Energy Inc. employees this year going through a new training program that company officials showed off to news media and government officials.

Trainees spend a week in an underground classroom at Bailey Mine Complex in Richhill, Greene County. One part is a typical-looking classroom with red plastic tables on painted gray floors. The rest is just around the corner: tunnels with mining equipment actually mining coal.

The program pairs trainees with miners who have as many as 40 years of experience. There's a wave of retirements coming all across the coal industry, and mining companies need to give focused, hands-on training to recruits to minimize potential for accidents and injuries, said Joe Sbaffoni, director of the Bureau of Mine Safety at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

“This is the way to do it,” Sbaffoni said after Consol officials led an hourlong tour and demonstration. “We've worked very closely with the program because I believe in it 100 percent. ... This is unique. It's state of the art.”

The industry had a slew of accidents the last time it hired a wave of workers in the 1970s, he said.

There were an average of 141 coal mining deaths a year nationwide that decade, compared to just 31 a year from 2006 to 2012, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration statistics show.

Pennsylvania had no mining deaths in 2010 and 2012, for the first years ever. The state's last mining death underground happened at Bailey in June 2009.

The $700 million investment — including a new longwall section at Bailey that opens in March — comes at a troubled time for Cecil-based Consol. The prices of natural gas and electricity, and a federal crackdown on coal pollution, have battered the coal industry. Consol alone lost nearly $14.6 million dollars in the first half of 2013 and had a fire at Blacksville.

Largely because of retirements, the company needs to hire about 500 to 1,000 coal miners every year. It has to stay strong for the long haul, and that means recruiting and training workers even during times of financial trouble and uncertainty, Consol President Nicholas J. DeIuliis said.

“That puts us in a position to ride out the peaks and the troughs in the market,” he said. “There's going to be really strong periods of time and challenging periods of time. The goal is not to change your decision-making in tough times.”

Consol's classes include supervision, equipment operation and mine examination. The goal is to get trainees a break from the hectic pace of production and into an environment where they can think and do work that inexperienced miners are not allowed to do, officials said.

“What's nice is you can bring them here and the pressure is off,” said Scott Kee, assistant superintendent at Bailey Mine Expansion. “They can learn and absorb it better. Otherwise, you take them in sometimes, and their heads just start spinning.”

Kee is in the type of position that Tim Harvilla would like someday. The 28-year-old from Mt. Pleasant, Washington County, started as an industrial engineer, studying how long it took company workers to complete tasks in the mine. To move up, he needs experience in doing some of the work, and learning from veterans is the best way, he said.

“These guys are absolute professionals at their jobs,” Harvilla said. “They give you tricks you won't learn in any book.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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