Learning from this year's US fatalities: part 1

WHILE no fatalities were marked in US coal mining in January, February brought with it most of the deaths of the first quarter – all at surface mines or on the surface of underground operations.
Learning from this year's US fatalities: part 1 Learning from this year's US fatalities: part 1 Learning from this year's US fatalities: part 1 Learning from this year's US fatalities: part 1 Learning from this year's US fatalities: part 1

The site of a West Virginia fatality in February.

Donna Schmidt

The first happened February 6 in West Virginia, when 70-year-old contractor truck driver William Wade hit an embankment and rolled over while driving a loaded vehicle downgrade at Elk Run Coal’s Republic Energy mine in Kanawha County.

Wade lost control of the truck and, according to investigators, either tried to escape the vehicle or was ejected before the overturn and was trapped under the cab.

Elk Run is a subsidiary of Massey Energy. Wade, who had just eight weeks of mining experience, was an employee of Medford Trucking.

By late February, the US Mine Safety and Health Administration had released a fatalgram on the incident, reminding other operators not to operate mobile equipment without a seat belt, to always observe speed limits and traffic rules, and to know the capabilities of the vehicle being driven.

The agency also encouraged US operations to train all employees in proper procedure as well as hazard recognition and avoidance in hopes that a similar scenario can be prevented in the future.

In May, the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training fined Medford Trucking $50,000, via five citations, for violations it said had contributed to Wade’s death. It released a 15-page investigative report, pointing to various issues with the truck’s brakes.

The state agency said the truck’s air brake system had been bypassed, thereby providing less air to the system, and excessive brake wear was found on both the truck and trailer – including one rear brake that was not working at all.

In addition to a record-keeping violation, Medford was cited for not complying with a mandatory mine safety program.

“Medford’s comprehensive mine safety program required the use of a daily inspection form that specified 59 different items to be inspected on coal trucks prior to the beginning of each shift,” the report said.

“Medford was not using the daily inspection form and instead had substituted a daily report form that required only 10 items be inspected prior to each shift. [Its] substitution … resulted in undetected safety defects on the No. 21 coal truck [and] this violation contributed to the accident.”

The second US coal death also occurred in a trucking-related incident, this time in Illinois with a 27-year-old contractor driving a tractor trailer.

Jarod Kacer was working at Knight Hawk Coal’s Prairie Eagle operation February 17 when a load of lumber he was delivering fell from a truck bed and crushed him. A mine spokesperson said at the time that the timber, used by the mine for supports, shifted and fell off the back of the vehicle.

Kacer worked for Kacer Trucking.

“A mine employee was using a forklift to unload the lumber from the trailer … [and] attempted to remove two bundles of lumber from the driver's side of the trailer,” MSHA said in a review of the incident.

“When he raised the forks, two bundles of lumber fell off the trailer on the passenger's side and struck the victim.”

In a fatalgram released on Kacer’s death a few weeks later, federal investigators issued best practices for other US operations that included conducting risk assessments on tasks and establishing safe work procedures, such as clear communications between workers.

Mine management was found to be liable in MSHA’s final investigative report of the Prairie Eagle death.

“The accident occurred because mine management's policies and controls were inadequate and failed to ensure that the truck load of lumber was unloaded in a manner that did not create a hazard to persons,” the agency said, noting that physical evidence, measurements and interviews all led to the conclusion that the accident’s cause was correctable through reasonable management controls.

The third US coal death of the year occurred as February was wrapping up. This time, the worker had no mining experience.

Contractor David McCarty, 50, was working February 26 at Covol Fuels No. 2’s Minuteman Fines Recovery Plant complex in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, to install a rolling steel overhead door.

According to an MSHA review, McCarty was standing on a 10-foot stepladder when the door descended during a test, striking the ladder and knocking him to the ground, where he hit his head on the concrete floor.

The mine’s parent company is Headwaters.

Shortly after the incident, federal officials released a fatalgram with best practices to avoid similar future incidents, including a reminder to use the SLAM technique – Stop, Look, Analyze and Manage. It encouraged mines to never allow work beneath suspended loads and to always position ladders away from moving objects which could bump or knock them over.

Additionally, it asked operations to always use fall projection and to tie off when there was a risk of a load falling anywhere on mine property, and to securely block any equipment from motion while work was being conducted.

MSHA found in its investigation of McCarty’s death that he and another worker assisting him skipped several of the manufacturer’s instructions for the 20ft by 14ft CHI Model 6202 door, including the fact that the curtain was not restricted, secured or adequately blocked during installation to prevent such a hazard.

The workers did not substitute any other means of safety or accident prevention during the installation.

The agency also noted the ladder was placed in such a way that the non-step legs were under the path of the door. A review of the torsion spring tension as well as the chain hoist operation revealed no defects, and MSHA said a lack of training did not contribute.

Federal officials ordered the mine to implement a new program to provide additional instruction to contractors, requiring them to follow manufacturers’ recommended procedures for all equipment, devices and products at the operation.

The fourth coal fatality marked in the quarter occurred March 6 at a Louisiana lignite operation, also a surface mine, after an accident claimed the life of 44-year-old dragline oiler Stanley Freeman.

Freeman, who had five years of experience, was working at the Dolet Hills Lignite Company mine.

“While the dragline was being deadheaded or walked to a new cut in the pit, the oiler needed to add extra grease to the cam/slide area of the walking mechanism,” MSHA said in its investigation of the incident.

“He walked from one shoe to the other through the dragline house, and was last seen standing on the end of the catwalk on the shoe. The victim was found in a pinch point between the shoe and the dragline house, approximately 10 feet from where he was last seen.”

The agency released a group of best practices for the prevention of other such events at US mines just a few weeks after the event. It encouraged miners not to locate themselves on dragline walking shoes while the unit was walking, and reminded workers to always have a positive means of verbal communication, such as a radio, with the dragline operator when working onboard the machine.

In its final investigative report, MSHA pointed to insufficient procedures by mine management – specifically, that the operator allowed the dragline oiler to manually lubricate the cam/slide mechanism while the unit was moving, something which required the oiler to have to travel the walking shoe while the dragline was in operation.

It ordered the mine to implement procedures stating that “effective immediately, dragline oilers will not be permitted to toss grease bags into the cam assembly while the dragline is walking”. The mine completed the implementation March 10.

The agency also said the mine operator did not provide adequate communication means between the oiler and operator, and therefore the oiler could not speak to others while he was working alone and could not notify the dragline’s operator of machine mount or dismount.

As of December 13, there have been 16 coal-related fatalities recorded in US coal operations. Two have occurred underground with the rest at surface mines or at the surface facilities of underground mines.

Keep reading ILN for a review of all coal-related deaths in the US this year, including incident details, investigation findings and associated state and federal fines.