Lessons from the safest year in mining

By and |  March 8, 2017

A number of things were done right in 2016 to achieve the fewest fatal accidents ever in coal and metal and nonmetal mining.

There were 25 mining deaths – nine in coal mines and 16 in metal and nonmetal mines. The 25 is an improvement from 2015, also a record year, when there were 28 mining deaths – 11 in coal mines and 17 in metal and nonmetal mines.

Some accidents, notably machinery fatalities, might have been prevented. The key is for miners to know they cannot be safe if they deviate from safe procedures. Miners can learn from examples like these among MSHA’s 2016 fatalgrams:

■ A technical representative for a manufacturer of coal mine long-wall shields was crushed while he was adding hydraulic components without having released all stored energy.
■ A miner used downward hydraulic pressure on the bucket of a front-end loader to raise the middle of the loader so he and another miner could work on it. When they crawled under, the hydraulic pressure released. Both miners were pinned, one fatally.
■ A remote control operator of a continuous mining machine was crushed against a rib by the machine boom while he was repositioning the trailing cable.
■ A miner was caught by a moving underground belt conveyor as he went under it preparing to change a roller.
■ A rotary drill operator placed a pipe wrench on a drill head cap to remove it. Standing on the drill deck, he activated the rotation lever for mechanical leverage. The wrench swung and pierced his abdomen.
■ A passenger in a pickup truck traveling down an inclined surface haul road was killed when the pickup ran into a berm and overturned.

What we know versus what we do

In safety meetings, everyone will agree that safe procedures should never be ignored. In everyday work, however, temptations to sacrifice safety in the interest of expediency are ever present.

Being safe often takes more time. Locking out electrical power, blocking equipment to be worked on and changing out defective equipment can be inconvenient. If safe replacement equipment is not readily available, changing out unsafe equipment may not seem to be an option.

Aside from time and inconvenience, a number of safety actions – such as buckling a seat belt – do not take time. There have been many mobile equipment accidents in which miners died not wearing seat belts. Similarly, miners wearing safety harnesses and lines have died while working at heights because they felt it was unnecessary to tie off.

Miners have died because they did not set equipment brakes before getting off. Miners have died because they did not block elevated components of heavy equipment being worked on. Miners have died from distracted driving, and also distracted walking.

Timesaving and convenience concerns persuade us to believe nothing bad will happen if we shortcut safety. When something bad happens, victims cannot imagine why they did what they did. Victims dying from injuries have acknowledged the “insanity” of their own actions. They even feel guilty.

In one case, a young supervisor thought he could jump between stationary railroad cars even though they were attached to a locomotive. When the train moved, he lost both his legs. While bleeding to death, he said to responders unable to help him: “It was my fault. Tell my wife I love her.”

How can we improve?

To keep saving lives, we need to emphasize safety to miners. But miners also need to hear a larger message from employers about what they need to do, why they need to do it and why it matters. They need to hear messages like these again and again:

■ You are a valued employee. We want you to be safe.
■ You are important to your family. They want you to be safe.
■ You know how to be safe, but it requires your full attention.
■ If you are unsure or need help, let someone know. We can help you be safe.
■ Understand full-time safety is a requirement of your job.


William Doran and Margo Lopez are with the national labor, employment and safety law firm Ogletree Deakins.

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