With the calendar year nearing its end, coal mining’s current level of on-the-job deaths could potentially leave us with a new record low come December 31. While it is still, of course, too early to tell definitively, year-to-year data shows a slight improvement (as of September 30). At press time, there had been eight total coal mining-related incidents with fatal injuries, versus 10 in the same time period in 2015. Last year, wrapped with a record low of 11 deaths in coal. Is progress being made on the road to zero? It certainly seems possible.
Looking only at the third quarter, one month was entirely quiet: August. Of the two deaths that were recorded, one each occurred in July and September. Once again, unfortunately, West Virginia caught the brunt of the bad turn.
The state recorded its third and fourth coal fatalities during the period; to date this year, West Virginia leads the per-state list with four, or half of coal’s eight deaths. Both occurred at the surface of underground mines, though one was classified as an ignition or explosion of gas while the other was recorded as a powered haulage event. Both victims had at least 10 years of mining experience.
It also important to note that the eight deaths to date have either been at underground operations or at the surface of an underground mine; powered haulage seems to be the top commonality between them (three), followed by machinery incidents and falls of rib (two each). Five of the eight victims in 2016 have had less than five years of experience at their home mine site and all but one of those eight had less than five years of experience at their job task. All are extremely interesting factors that could prove themselves as trends come year-end.
Final investigative reports are still in process for both of the third quarter’s fatal events; however, much can still be taken from each of them.
The seventh coal mining fatality of 2016 occurred at Spartan Mining Co.’s Road Fork No. 51 mine in Pineville, Wyoming County, West Virginia, on July 29. The victim died of his injuries August 4.
Road Fork 51
The incident that led up to the seventh coal mining fatality of 2016 occurred at Spartan Mining Co.’s Road Fork No. 51 mine in Pineville, Wyoming County, West Virginia, on July 29. According to preliminary details from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), two miners were working the daytime shift at the Alpha Natural Resources’ mine to thread blocks to secure the guarding around the driveshaft between a motor and a dewatering pump located on the surface of the No. 3 Shaft.
At about 12:35 p.m., methane was ignited from within the shaft, with the victim — 58-year-old maintenance worker Donald Workman — in direct line of the ignition force. Workman, a 40-year mining veteran who had worked at the operation just 14 weeks, succumbed to his injuries six days later on August 4.
MSHA classified the incident as an ignition of explosion of gas or duct, and in a safety alert that followed, federal investigators stressed methane hazards and safety, including proper examinations for the gas both before and periodically during welding, cutting or soldering.
In addition to supplemental ventilation as needed, the agency also said in a series of best practices for prevention of future incidents that welding, cutting or soldering with an arc or flame should never be performed in an area where methane levels exceed 1% by volume. Use of properly calibrated gas detectors and the placement of non-combustible barriers when working over or in a shaft were also highlighted. Finally, MSHA urged mines to always use non-sparking tools in a potentially flammable area (or not working near these locations at all when welding and cutting) and to ensure all workers receive proper training on mine gases and detectors.
On September 23, at a separate Alpha Natural Resources operation in West Virginia, a powered haulage at the surface of the Slip Ridge Cedar Grove mine took the life of 46-year-old Matthew Davis as he was leaving the work site.
According to MSHA details in its preliminary report, Davis — a miner for 11 years who was normally a shuttle car operator at the Raleigh County mine operated by Marfork Coal — was exiting the property in his personal vehicle when driving on the mine’s access/haul road.
“The victim (a passenger) and a coworker (driver) were traveling down an inclined portion of the road when the driver apparently lost control of the pickup truck, causing it to strike the road berm and roll over in the roadway,” MSHA said of the event, which occurred at about 2:25 a.m. Because a final investigative report has not yet been released, details on speed and other factors have not been made available.
The driver of the Ford F-150 sustained minor injuries and was treated and released from a local medical center.
However, in a safety alert issued to the industry in the weeks following the death, MSHA stressed the use of seat belts while operating mobile equipment, whether work equipment or personal vehicles as well as maintaining control and traveling at safe speeds. It also urged workers never to use cell phones for calls or texting while operating these vehicles.
For mine officials, investigators asked that all signage for traffic rules, speed limits and warnings be clearly visible, and that such rules and regulations be enforced, and also that access roads be properly maintained and free of hazards. Steering and braking systems should always be in good repair and adjustment as well, it said.
An 11-year mining veteran was leaving a West Virginia work site as the passenger in a personal vehicle when the driver apparently lost control.
Final Report: Leer Mine
On October 4, MSHA investigators released its final findings from a fatal powered haulage accident on May 16 that took the life of a 50-year-old motorman at an Arch Coal complex in Grafton, West Virginia. At about 4 a.m. that day, Eric Meddings, who had 14 years of mining experience, was tasked with getting two rail-mounted diesel locomotives and two drop-deck cars loaded with face conveyor chain near the slope bottom and take them to the Leer mine’s 2-D longwall setup.
Meddings and his co-worker, Tom Beeman Jr., performed pre-operational checks on the equipment before traveling to 2-D, where the chain was then unloaded. After the drop, the men used the No. 5 outby locomotive, coupling two unloaded cars to four additional drop-deck cars already on the section.
“Beeman dismounted the locomotive to check the coupler alignment,” MSHA detailed in the report. “The two cars had to be separated from the train due to space requirements between the airlock doors. Beeman said he was attempting to align the couplers between his locomotive and the last drop-deck car when the train unexpectedly moved away from him…[thus] he was not able to couple the locomotive to the cars. The train then traveled out of Beeman’s sight.”
Because there were no eyewitnesses to the incident that followed, MSHA officials used Beeman’s statements to describe the accident, beginning when he re-entered the locomotive and traveled in the direction of the slop bottom — and was met with dust and increased air movement.
“He stopped at the first (inby) airlock door, which was open and he could see that the outby airlock door was damaged,” officials said of Beeman’s recounting. “He exited his locomotive and walked through the damaged door toward the slope. Beeman observed the train had stopped and he discovered Meddings unresponsive and leaning sideways in the operator’s seat. He checked Meddings for a pulse but there was none. CPR was performed on-site as well as en route to a medical center, but a physician at Grafton City Hospital ultimately pronounced the worker dead.”
A review of the accident scene found no irregularities in the steel rail track, and electrical and gas testing found no issues. “The investigation revealed no evidence to indicate Meddings struck the mine roof or any other structure prior to the No. 5 locomotive [Brookville diesel] crashing through the outby airlock door,” the report said. The Irwin drop-deck cars were also examined; no issues were noted.
While mention was made in preliminary reports regarding the mine’s airlock doors, and MSHA review of the doors, manufactured by Krist Door Services, also found no irregularities.
“They were installed in a pair,” investigators said, noting that the openings measured 7 feet (ft) high and 15 ft wide. With a weight on each door of about 630 pounds (lb), each door is hinged horizontally at the top with two hydraulic jacks mounted to the door sides. They are remotely operated via an up/down switch.
“The doors are electrically interlocked to prevent both doors from being opened at the same time. This could not be tested initially due to the extent of the damage to the door, but was subsequently tested and determined to work as designed,” the group said.
“The airlock doors are mounted with the door bottom slightly inby the top hinge and they open inby so less force is required to open them against the ventilation system pressure. The locomotive crashed through the closed door in a direction opposite to the direction the door opens. This caused significant damage to the door and frame, but the door was not dislodged from the roof or ribs.”
One worker was killed in May while working underground at Arch Coal’s Leer complex.
While many mining accidents reveal one or more contributing factors that result in the death of a worker, this incident at Leer could likely leave the industry with more questions than answers.
“The victim received fatal injuries from blunt force trauma to the mid-chest and above areas of his body,” MSHA concluded. “The investigation did not reveal any conclusive evidence to determine what caused the victim and the trip to move away from the slope bottom switch and crash through the closed airlock door.”
It did, however, say that the mine operator did not have an effective policy, program, procedure or controls in place to protect workers from the hazards of traveling through airlock doors when the trip length exceeds the distance between the doors. As a result, the operator developed and implemented procedures for how its miners should separate supply train and travel through airlock doors when the train length exceeds the distance between the airlock doors.
“The new procedures require the locomotive operators to use their handheld radio to communicate with each other during the car separation procedure, and the motorman passing through an airlock must open and close the airlock door for themselves,” MSHA noted.
No citations or orders were issued as a result of the incident, aside from the initial 103(k) to stop production after the crash.
Arch’s Leer mine is operated by ACI Tygart Valley.
MSHA Confirms FY2016 Safest in Mining History
Between October 1, 2015, and September 30, which the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has defined as its 2016 fiscal year, both recorded that both mining deaths and the levels of dust from submitted samples dropped to historic lows.
In an announcement in early October at MSHA’s National Mining Health and Safety Academy in West Virginia, Assistant Secretary of Labor Joseph Main confirmed 24 deaths across the nation’s 13,000-plus mines of all commodity types. The figure is the lowest since the 2013 fiscal year, when the industry recorded 34 deaths.
The total is also a significant improvement over fiscal year 2015, when mining as a whole lost 38 miners on the job.
“These numbers represent nearly a 30% drop since FY 2013,” Main said at the annual Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) conference, which brings together mine management from across the U.S. “The extensive efforts by MSHA and the mining community that held metal and nonmetal mining deaths to three during a seven-month period were instrumental in driving these numbers.”
Turning its focus to mining’s health issues, Main also said the industry is continuing to make significant strides on lowering respirable coal mine dust levels. In fact, he said, sampling for FY2016 has shown that results have dropped to new record lows. During the period, the yearly average respirable dust samples collected by MSHA from the dustiest occupations in underground coal mines fell to 0.64 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3), down from the FY 2015 average of 0.70 mg/m3.
In all, since new outlines were put into place by MSHA, almost 154,000 respirable dust samples have been collected. Of those, 99.3% have met compliance levels.
Additionally, operator sampling with continuous personal dust monitors (CPDMs) has also returned some positive news. Between April 1, 2014, and July 31 of this year, mine operators collected nearly 40,000 valid CPDM samples with a 99.8% compliance rate.