New mine death reports

February 6, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration this week issued reports on two of last year’s 29 coal-mining deaths, including one that occurred at CONSOL Energy’s Robinson Run Mine in Marion County, W.Va.

Underground mine locomotive operator Gary A. Hoffman, 55, of Rivesville, was killed on June 5, 2008, when he lost control of a 20-ton locomotive and two flat car. He was delivering roof-support “cribs” into the mine, located near Mannington. Hoffman apparently fell, jumped, or was knocked off the locomotive

MSHA investigators reported that Hoffman “was unable to maintain control of the locomotive and loaded flat cars due to condensation and moisture on the rails.”

Previously, the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training cited CONSOL, saying that a sand application system — meant to reduce the moisture that naturally builds up on track systems in underground mines — wasn’t working properly on Hoffman’s locomotive. State investigators reported that a “drop tube” on that system was plugged:

“This sander is required for the safe operation of the locomotive. Evidence indicates that this violation contributed directly to the accident.”

At first glance, I thought that MSHA investigators disagreed:

“Sand applied with the outby sanders would not be effective to slow the locomotive in the direction of travel at the time of the accident. The outby sanders dispense sand outby or behind the outby wheels on the outby end of the locomotive, and are ineffective because the wheels and locomotive are traveling in an inby direction.”

For those of you who don’t know, the term “outby” refers to the direction out of the mine, toward the surface or mine opening. The term “inby” refers to the direction further into the mine, generally toward the working face.

So, at first, I thought that perhaps the state investigators had made a mistake here in citing CONSOL for the problem with the sand dispenser.

But, I pulled out the state’s report and took another look…and state investigators specifically refer to “inby sanders” as those that weren’t functioning.

Regardless of these conflicting reports from state and federal investigators, the main question I always have with reports of mining deaths is whether the deaths could have been avoided. When I reviewed a decade’s worth of such reports for the Gazette’s Beyond Sago project, I found that 9 out of 10 mining deaths in the U.S. could have been prevented if mining operators had complied with existing regulations.

In this case, CONSOL escaped without any contributing citations from MSHA. But the agency’s report made it clear that everyone knew there was a problem with slick rails:

“Mine management and the motor crew for this shift acknowledged that the warm, moist air from outside and the cool underground temperature would create slick mine rails. “

So what did MSHA do? Agency officials issued a “safeguard order” — which carries no monetary fine — that required CONSOL to apply sand to the rails in the future.

In the other report issued this week, MSHA cited Century Operations LLC in the July 17, 2008, death of Joseph D. Roberts. Roberts, a 45-year-old shuttle car operator, was killed at the Butcher Branch Mine at Beverly, Bell County, Ky.

According to the MSHA report, Roberts was pinned against the mine roof by a scoop. At the time of the accident, a scoop operator had encountered a dip in the floor, and was trying to stop the vehicle. The scoop operator lowered the bucket into the mine floor, which caused the scoop itself to raise upward, pinning Roberts — who was riding on top of the scoop at the time — against the roof.

MSHA investigators concluded:

“The accident occurred because: (1) management policies and procedures were inadequate and failed to ensure that miners did not ride on top of mobile equipment; (2) adequate equipment examinations were not being conducted and no corrective actions were taken as required on mobile equipment; and (3) the scoop’s braking systems were not maintained in a proper operating condition.”

MSHA issued an imminent danger order — among its most serious enforcement actions — as well as 3 other enforcement orders and one citation.

I checked MSHA’s online Data Retrieval System this morning, and fines for those violations have not yet been assessed. I also did a quick check of the Web site for the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, and did not see a report on Roberts’ death available online there yet.

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