2021 fatal accident spike could become a ‘defining’ moment

By and |  September 3, 2021
Headshots: Bill Doran and Margo Lopez

Bill Doran and Margo Lopez

The mining industry had its eye on a variety of anticipated events throughout the first half of 2021. These events could have significant impacts on the progress of the industry moving forward.

Among the events the industry awaits is the passage of a sweeping infrastructure bill, the promulgation of a crystalline silica rule and the expected introduction of more enforcement-minded leadership at the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA). Last, but not least, is the impact the pandemic continues to have on everyone in the mining community.

In the midst of all this, however, is a development that has not been as widely publicized – but one that could quickly become a defining moment for the industry. And that is the spike in fatal accidents.

Where we are

Twenty-nine fatalities occurred in the mining industry in 2020. In 2018 and 2019, there were 28 and 27, respectively.

Of the 29 fatal 2020 accidents, 24 were at metal/nonmetal operations. As of Aug. 9 this year, there were 23 fatalities resulting from 22 accidents in the U.S. Of the 23, 17 happened at metal/nonmetal operations.

Last year by this time, there were only 14 fatal accidents. Twelve of those took place at metal/nonmetal operations.

While it’s true that boiling these accidents down to statistical trends for comparison purposes blurs the reality that each incident has its own facts and involves the tragic death of a miner, it is nonetheless clear that – with four months left to go in 2021 – these numbers are going the wrong way.

With this said, identifying the trend does not necessarily pinpoint a clear cause or solution. Some observers suggest that annual training delays in 2020, occasioned by the social distancing requirements of the pandemic, may contribute to compliance and attention lapses in 2021. This seems like a tenuous argument at best, though.

By the end of 2020, the great majority of mine operators completed their training obligations. Similarly, the fatal accident rate in 2020 was relatively static, and the injury rate was the lowest in history: 1.83 overall and 1.59 for metal/nonmetal.

Still, others suggest that the strains and stresses of the pandemic contributed to the 2021 accident trend. But a review of individual accident reports makes this a difficult theory to quantify.

So, what’s causing the spike?

An analysis of the information available about 2021 accidents provides a few clues.

By far, the largest accident category is powered haulage. There were nine powered haulage accidents since Jan. 1 that accounted for 10 fatalities.

On the metal/nonmetal side, these events include a mantrip being struck by a locomotive, a parked pickup struck by a haul truck and a miner entangled in energized equipment after entering an area guard.

While the facts and mining conditions are all different, these events – with the exception of the guarding case – all raise central themes about effective communication, defined and clearly marked traffic patterns, and situational awareness.

MSHA stressed these themes throughout its years-long powered haulage program, as well as during July’s “Stand Down for Safety Day.” These themes will undoubtedly be an important part of MSHA’s soon-to-be-released powered haulage standard, as well.

Additionally, many mine operators joined in the awareness effort with their own safety stand-downs, upping the emphasis on best practices.

After powered haulage, the next-largest accident category is machinery, which involves four 2021 fatalities. While the available data does not provide operator findings related to these incidents, MSHA’s focus in investigations concentrates on best practices such as identifying safe locations to conduct repairs and observations, understanding design capacity and discussing safe work procedures before performing a task.

With the attention of everyone in the industry, the fatality spike can be stopped in its tracks. Continued emphasis on best practices, focusing on lessons learned from recent accidents and continuously communicating effective safety procedures is the formula to get the situation under control.

Bill Doran and Margo Lopez are with the national labor, employment and safety law firm Ogletree Deakins. They can be reached at william.doran@ogletree.com and margaret.lopez@ogletree.com.

Featured photo: P&Q Staff

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