The first story about the death of Mr. Ricky “Mud Puddle” Collins came on Thursday afternoon (3/27) in an AP story Massey Miner Killed in Logan County. The short news clip mentioned a miner employed at Massey Energy’s Freeze Fork Surface Mine in Logan County, who we later learned was Mr. Collins, 43, of Dan’s Branch, WV. The article said he:

“died while working on a trailer at a railroad crossing near Stollings in Logan County Thursday,”  but

“MSHA is not investigating the accident because it did not occur on mine property.”

An article the next day said the trailer “saddle-bagged” over the railroad tracks, and while Mr. Collins was attempting to dislodge it, a piece of metal struck and killed him. What I’ve learned about this incident is that Mr. Collins requested assistance by telephone or radio from someone (a supervisor?) back at the mine, and soon a couple of other workers were sent to the railroad tracks to assist him.

As a result, this railroad crossing became the impromptu workplace for these men.  Ricky “Mud Puddle” Collins was a miner, doing an assigned task. He was transporting some kind of equipment that belonged to the mine operator.  When he ran into trouble on the railroad tracks, employees from his worksite were sent to assist him. Then, he was killed in the course of doing his job.  MSHA’s senior officials have decided, however, that because it did not occur on mine property, it is not mining-related.  That’s wrong. 

It’s wrong from a worker safety and health perspective, and it’s also an egregiously narrow reading of MSHA’s own Part 50 regulations and Accident/Illness Investigation Procedures.  There are several categories of accidents defined in this procedure manual which require an investigation, including:

“an event at a mine which causes death or bodily injury to an individual not at the mine at the time the event occurs.”

In this case, the event at the mine was the decision that this equipment had to be transported elsewhere, and Mr. Collins was given this task. 

Last year, MSHA released a decision-tree document that was supposed to clarify when fatal injuries would “count” as mining-related.  The first two questions guiding a decision

“Did the incident resulting in death occur on mine property?” OR “Result from activity on mine property?”

I cautioned at the time that these criteria put MSHA on a reductionist path of only investigating the narrowest definition of mining fatalities.  It turns the agency’s back againsts its Mine Act roots, which are based in prevention.  Moreover, it aligns MSHA too closely with the mining industry and its economic and social goals of attributing as few fatalities as possible to mining-related work.

If one were to take a more forgiving attitude, she could suggest that MSHA doesn’t have jurisdiction (American Heritage: “authority or control”) to investigate fatalities that occur off of mine property.  Maybe MSHA’s senior officials or the attorneys from the Solicitor’s Office believe they would be on shaky legal ground investigating the death of this Massey Energy employee.  Is it fear of a lawsuit from Massey Energy that is deterring MSHA from investigating this death?

Whatever the reason, perhaps it is time for Congress to eliminate any uncertainty in MSHA’s authority for investigating a mining-related death.  Congress could direct the agency to:

investigate and prepare a written report on all fatal injuries and illnesses that may have resulted from work at a mine, regardless of the current employment status of the individual (i.e., currently employed, retired, or otherwise off work.)

Counting deceased miners fatally injuried from methane blasts and roof falls may have been all that was expected back in the 1970′s, but I expect more from MSHA today.  It’s time to apply some “continuous quality improvement” principles to our worker safety and health agencies, which are now pushing 40 years old (Coal Act 1969; OSHA Act 1970; Mine Act 1978).

In the obituary in the Williamson Daily News for Mr. Ricky “Mud Puddle” Collins, it notes that he is survived by his father, his wife, Tammy Savage Collins, two sons and a daughter, a brother and sister, his father and mother in-law, “who were like his parents.” 

Even if MSHA doesn’t say so, I believe Mr. Collins’ death was mining work-related.

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Celeste Monforton, MPH is with the Dept of Environmental & Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She worked at MSHA from 1995-2001. 

Comments

  1. #1 Tasha
    April 11, 2008

    If MSHA doesn’t investigate, does OSHA have authority to investigate? After all, even if it isn’t particularly mining-related, it’s certainly work-related.

    Or does it fall out of the OSHA regulatory jurisdiction as well because it was within the mining industry (although not necessarily on mining property)?

    You are right that this should not be allowed to fall through the regulatory cracks.

  2. #2 Tasha
    April 11, 2008

    Actually I found the answer to my own question:

    http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=DIRECTIVES&p_id=1639

    OSHA Instruction CPL 2.42 March 14, 1980 Office of Compliance Programming

    a. In general, unsafe and unhealthful working conditions on mine sites and in milling operations come under the jurisdiction of MSHA and its regulations. This jurisdiction includes construction at mine and mineral milling sites, including construction related to mining and milling performed by independent contractors. Where the provisions of the Mine Act and standards issued under it either do not cover or do not apply to occupational safety and health hazards on mine or mill sites (e.g., in those facilities unrelated to mining or milling such as hospitals on mine sites), OSHA applies. Also, when MSHA receives information about possible unsafe working conditions in an area over which it has authority, but for which its statutes or standards afford no appropriate remedy, it will refer the matter to OSHA.

    (Emphasis added)

    It looks like MSHA needs to pass this one over – explicitly – to OSHA.

  3. #3 Tasha
    April 11, 2008

    Ok, here I am again… I posted before I read the whole article… :)

    According to the second article that you linked OSHA is investigating the incident. To be entirely honest, I think that’s the preferred option in this incident.

    MSHA jurisdiction covers specifically mining activities. That would mean (to me at least) that this is where their expertise lies, and where they should be spending the majority of their time. OSHA, on the other hand, is arguably more experienced in non-mining hazards – such as being struck by an unsecured metal object. And OSHA – at least the OSHA inspectors that I’ve had the privilege to work with – does good work. They’ll get to the bottom of what happened and penalize as necessary. I would have been concerned if there had been some jurisdictional ambiguity, but it seems like OSHA took over the investigation fairly smoothly without much delay.

    If you’re concerned about how this affects MSHA counts… well, you know what I think about that. :) I’ve never considered any regulatory agencies “count” to be an official count of anything, merely because of the policy and regulatory principles that govern those numbers. Some people may mistakenly turn to MSHA for an official count of fatalities in the mining industry, but this would be a mistake, for the reasons that you’ve so often pointed out. I don’t believe that this is reason for MSHA to change it’s methods, but instead a reason why the public and the media need to be educated about what’s what.

  4. #4 Celeste Monforton
    April 14, 2008

    Tasha,
    As always, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I also saw in the article that OSHA was investigating, but because I’ve seen these types of fatalities bounce back and forth, and then through the cracks, I faxed a letter to OSHA’s Charleston, WV office just to get an official confirmation. I’m going to be keeping my eyes on this one. I can’t help but have a soft spot in my heart for any guy with a nickname “Mud Puddle.” sigh

  5. #5 Celeste Monforton
    April 15, 2008

    I received a call back from OSHA’s Area Office in Charleston, WV. They confirmed that they are conducting a fatality investigation of the death of Mr. Ricky “Mud Puddle” Collins. By law, OSHA has 6 months to complete its investigation (unlike MSHA, which has no statutory deadline for completing its investigations.)