Violations of federal safety rules are common at many underground coal mines. Most are relatively insignificant and are corrected swiftly.
But sometimes Mine Safety and Health Administration officials identify a pattern of repeated violations, including many that display "high or reckless disregard." When that happens, the mines are designated as pattern violators. Last year, just four mines in the country received pattern violator notices.
On Monday, two men died in an accident at one of them, the Brody Mine No. 1 in Boone County, W.Va.
Pattern violator status enables the MSHA to shut down areas of mines where insufficient progress has been made in reducing safety violations. That step is taken rarely.
But the fatalities on Monday raise an obvious question: Should the MSHA be more strict in dealing with pattern violator mining companies?
State and federal agencies will investigate the deadly accident. Initial reports, according to the Associated Press, were that "the ground failed" at the mine, trapping the two workers for a time. A "coal outburst" was at fault, according to the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.
One of the first tasks state and federal agencies should undertake is to learn whether the accident was related to previous violations of safety rules. Hundreds of them have been recorded at the mine, owned by Patriot Coal. The company previously had indicated it would fight the MSHA pattern violator designation.
Deciding whether to order workers out of part or all of a mine is not an easy task, of course. For one thing, such action can deprive scores or even hundreds of men and women of paychecks. For another, it can affect entire communities adversely.
But state and MSHA officials should look at the Monday fatalities in the context of the pattern violator designation. Clearly, closing the mine section where the deaths occurred would have prevented them.
If it is determined that should have been done at the Brody Mine, state and federal regulators should reevaluate how they handle pattern violators. Those where a clear and present danger exists should be closed without delay.