Mine fatality causes and prevention

By |  November 10, 2014

Heenan_Michael_157x150-GIFHere’s a breakdown of the fatal U.S. mine accidents this year through Sept. 30:

Coal mines
■ Four underground employees on foot were crushed by equipment in operation.
■ Two employees were killed by unblocked equipment they worked on.
■ Two died when their equipment (haul truck, dozer) went over the edge.
■ Two employees under ground were struck by ground (rib burst).
■ One employee contacted high voltage during equipment repair (troubleshooting).

Metal-nonmetal mines
■ Three truck drivers on foot were crushed by mobile equipment in operation.
■ Five employees were killed by unblocked equipment they worked on.
■ Two operators died when their equipment went over the edge.
■ Two employees, underground scalers, were fatally impacted by ground fall.
■ One employee contacted high voltage.

There were other metal-nonmetal accidents, including three employees killed in falls from heights, one entangled in a drill and one killed when equipment burst during repairs. Also, one person lost his life when an embankment gave way.

Focusing only on the five bulletpoint categories above, the tragic parallel for coal and metal-nonmetal mines is remarkable. Eleven coal miners and 13 metal-nonmetal miners –many in sand, gravel, stone and cement operations – died from similar causes. The top three hit close to home at metal-nonmetal mines.

■ If three truck drivers had not gotten out of their trucks, they would have remained safe.
■ If miners blocked equipment so it could not move unexpectedly, they would be alive.
■ If equipment control problems could have been anticipated, safety may have prevailed.

Operator precautions

For operators, the challenge of prevention is always something to pursue, but while mindful of dangers, managers typically feel conditions are safe at their own operations. Employees feel safe as well – and therein is a danger. They are not safe unless they make a point of being safe all the time. Employers must help them. Management can help with regular supervisor training. Supervisors can help by employing lessons learned with their crews. Great successes have been achieved at mines where there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything and good procedures become automatic.

It is critical that supervisors show genuine concern for employees. This includes retraining, counseling and disciplining employees when they are not following procedures. Setting a good example is also essential. Example sends a forceful, non-verbal message.

Workers do what they are required to do – if they know what exactly is expected of them. If they think expectations differ from stated requirements, they will do what they think is expected. This includes following a bad example. A workplace culture that values performance that is both efficient and conscientious regarding safety is indispensable.

MSHA enforcement

With an increase in fatal accidents this year, MSHA is ratcheting up enforcement. For individual mines, trends have little significance for how they operate. If they have never experienced a serious accident, workers are not likely to spend a lot of time worrying about the possibility. Statistics may demonstrate danger, but mine accident statistics, like highway accident statistics, are hard for individuals to relate to on a practical level.

Statistics drive MSHA. The agency operates on the principal that it can drive fatalities down by pushing enforcement up. As Joe Main, the assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, notes: “MSHA has undertaken a number of measures to prevent mining deaths, injuries and illnesses: increased surveillance and strategic enforcement through impact inspections at mines with troubling compliance histories; enhanced pattern of violations actions; special initiatives such as Rules to Live By, which focuses attention on the most common causes of mining deaths; and outreach efforts.”

In response to serious violations, MSHA uses its investigative and prosecutorial authority vigorously. MSHA assesses civil penalties against managers and supervisors every year (265 in 2012; 169 in 2013).

Criminal referrals to the U.S. Department of Justice also occur (13 in 2012; eight in 2013). MSHA is also intent on investigating every complaint by a miner who claims discriminatory discharge or mistreatment in retaliation for protected mine safety activity. There are many such cases (224 in 2012; 201 in 2013).

MSHA employs other tools such as pattern of violations enforcement, but none of these things will prevent accidents unless operators take extraordinary measures to increase vigilance for unsafe conditions and risky job performance.

The bottom line

A fatal or serious accident is a terrible thing. It takes the life of a coworker, someone you worked with and possibly knew well. A friend, a colleague, a family member is suddenly and horribly lost. Nobody expected it; no one saw it coming. Concern about MSHA enforcement probably would not have prevented it, but enforcement will follow immediately after the required 15-minute report to MSHA. An investigation will start immediately.

MSHA will find causes and violations, and it will assess heavy penalties. In hindsight, you may even agree with MSHA’s conclusions. But nothing will bring back the person who died.

Take note

Great successes have been achieved at mines where there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything and good procedures become automatic.

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Allison Barwacz

About the Author:

Allison Barwacz is the digital media manager for North Coast Media (NCM). She completed her undergraduate degree at Ohio University where she received a Bachelor of Science in magazine journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She works across a number of digital platforms, which include creating e-newsletters, writing articles and posting across social media sites. She also creates content for NCM's Portable Plants magazine, GPS World magazine and Geospatial Solutions. Her understanding of the ever-changing digital media world allows her to quickly grasp what a target audience desires and create content that is appealing and relevant for any client across any platform.

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