Why coal miners die on the job

March 2, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Earlier this week, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration issued the report of its investigation into the death of Richard Coots, a 23-year-old repairman/miner who was killed on October 7, 2011,at Owlco Energy LLC’s Mine No. 1 in Letcher County, Ky. Here’s how MSHA summarized the incident:

The accident occurred when a piece of mined roof rock used to support the raised Jeffrey Model 506 mobile bridge conveyor became dislodged, causing the bridge conveyor to fall and strike the victim. As a result, the victim was pinned between the mobile bridge conveyor and the mine floor, causing fatal injuries.

MSHA investigators concluded in their report:

The accident occurred because of mine management’s failure to ensure that raised equipment was blocked properly before allowing miners to work beneath
it and miners were not trained in proper blocking techniques.

Federal inspectors cited the company for not ensuring the bridge conveyor was properly blocked and for a miner training violation. But other problems weren’t cited.

Longtime mine safety advocate and lawyer Tony Oppegard is representing Kayla Coots, the widow of the miner killed in this accident, and Tony was kind enough to pass on to me a note he sent to MSHA chief Joe Main about the federal agency’s inaction on other things it found after this death. Among other things, Tony wrote:

What the report doesn’t explicitly state, but what the Coots family has been told by investigators, is that there were, in fact, crib blocks located near the section power center that could have been used to properly block the bridge conveyor against motion. Those materials were located about 2-3 breaks from the accident scene, which was perhaps a one minute ride by buggy. In other words, because Owlco didn’t take the few minutes necessary to properly prop up the bridge before repair work was performed (i.e., because it didn’t follow basic safety procedures), a young miner needlessly lost his life. Clearly this was an accident that never should have happened. Mr. Coots was survived by his 21-year old wife and by their two young daughters, ages 4 and 3 months.

The reason I am writing on behalf of Ms. Coots is because of her family’s dissatisfaction that MSHA did not issue citations to Owlco for its failure to perform proper onshift and preshift examinations prior to the accident. According to investigators, the presence of the rock beneath the bridge conveyor – i.e., the failure to properly support that piece of equipment – was not noted by Mr. Hoskins in his onshift report on October 6th. Clearly, the day shift foreman knew about the presence of this hazardous condition when he exited the mine on October 6th – because he was the person that had placed the rock under the bridge conveyor. Indeed, we believe this condition constituted an imminent danger. Even if Mr. Hoskins had completed his onshift examination for hazardous conditions prior to causing the unsafe condition (i.e., before he used the rock to prop up the bridge conveyor), in our view he had an obligation under section 303(e) of the Mine Act to note in the onshift report – before he left the mine property – that this hazardous and unlawful condition existed at the bridge conveyor. Of course, he also had a legal duty to correct the hazardous condition, which he did not do.

MSHA’s accident investigation report also states that the 2nd shift foreman, Mark Sizemore, conducted a preshift examination for hazardous conditions before the 2nd shift crew began work on the evening of October 6th. Because he knew that coal could not be produced until the bridge conveyor was repaired, and because he knew that the equipment had to be properly blocked against motion while repairs were being performed, in our view Mr. Sizemore had an obligation under section 303(d)(1) of the Mine Act to conduct a preshift examination for hazardous conditions in that area of the mine (where he knew that miners on his crew would be working). However, according to MSHA’s investigators, the presence of the rock beneath the bridge conveyor likewise was not noted by Mr. Sizemore in his preshift report that evening.

Although one could argue that perhaps the preshift examiner did not see the rock that had been placed under the bridge conveyor – even though it was in plain sight – in our view that is not the issue. Clearly, the preshift examiner – who in this case was also the shift foreman – had a responsibility to check the bridge conveyor to ensure that it was properly blocked against motion because he knew that the repairman, Mr. Coots, would be working there. In other words, he had a duty to ensure that the equipment was propped up with crib blocks before any repair work was done. However, Mr. Sizemore failed to do so. Thus, his preshift examination clearly was inadequate.

In light of these facts, Ms. Coots hereby requests that MSHA review its accident investigation report; amend the report to state that cribs blocks were available for use at the time of the fatal accident; amend the report to state that the day shift foreman failed to note a hazardous condition in his onshift report; amend the report to state that Owlco’s preshift examiner for the 2nd shift failed to note that a hazardous condition existed; and issue citations to Owlco for its inadequate onshift and preshift examinations on October 6th. We also ask that MSHA refer this matter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for a possible criminal investigation. Finally, we ask that MSHA refer this matter to the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety & Licensing for the potential filing of disciplinary actions against the day shift and 2nd shift foremen.

Keep in mind that Joe Main and MSHA are trying to tighten the requirements for pre-shift examinations in the nation’s coal mines — but they apparently aren’t enforcing the standards that are already on the books in this area …

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