[Updated 11/14/11 below]
Barrick Goldstrike is the largest gold producer in the world, with a stock market value of $51.0 Billion. With that kind of wealth, one has to ask why workers at the company’s Meikle mine near Elko, Nevada were compelled to use a broom handle to keep a reset button depressed, so tons of aggregate rock would continue to flow down a shaft. That jerry-rigging along with the mine management’s failure to correct other defects, such as missing clamp bolts and load-bearing plates on the aggregate carrying pipe system, led to the death of Daniel Noel, 47, and Joel Schorr, 38.
Just after midnight on August 12, 2010, that aggregate carry pipe system clogged up. The rock may have been extra wet, and it wasn’t the first time the pipe got jammed up with material. Daniel Noel and Joel Schorr went inside the underground shaft, and were harnessed to a hoist at the 1225 foot level of the shaft, adjacent to a 24-inch diameter pipe. Their task: tap on the pipe with a short-handle axe to find where the aggregate was clogging up the pipe. Tapping on the pipe might free the material, or more aggressive measures would be taken once they near its location inside the pipe. As they moved up the pipe, the pressure on the hoists hydraulics registered about 820 psi. Suddenly, the rock material inside the pipe surged free, overwhelming the system and the hoist pressure spike to 3,000 psi. The hoist’s drum was ripped from its mounts, and Daniel Noel, 47, and Joel Schorr, 38 were crushed by the falling pipe and tons of aggregate. It took rescuers six days to recover their bodies.
It’s difficult to believe that a multi-national corporation that boasts of “field level risk assessment” to identify and eliminate hazards could have the litany of maintenance, repair and operations deficiencies describe in MSHA’s fatality investigation report. This includes Barrick management’s failure to:
“ensure that safety defects to the aggregate pipe system and the aggregate pipe electrical system were corrected in a timely manner…”;
“ensure that installation of critical bolts was being adhered to in accordance with the manufacturer’s and design requirements”;
“ensure that persons could safely unplug the aggregate pipe system”;
provide task training to the miners involved in the fatal incident; and
“…establish and pursue a systematic procedure of inspection and maintenance of the shaft.”
The photos in MSHA’s report amplify the investigators’ narrative. The photos show, for example, pipe sections welded together instead of using couplings; bracket components modified but affixed with the wrong size hardware (e.g., bolt washers); and load-bearing plates welded at the wrong angle. In sum, MSHA concluded that Barrick’s management
“engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence.”
In the quarter preceeding Daniel Noel’s and Joel Schorr’s death in 2010, Barrick’s earnings exceeded $780 milion. Yet a broom handle was used to defeat a safety alarm. This alarm and sensor was designed to alert workers when the silo was getting overfilled. What MSHA doesn’t address in the report is WHY workers were compelled to override the alarm? Did it malfunction so often that its beeps or falshing lights became meaningless? Did complaints about alarm malfunctions fall on deaf ears? Was there unusual pressure to keep up a constant flow of aggregate backfill?
Barrick Gold says it investigates all incidents to “determine the root cause and prevent future events.” I’ve ask them to share a copy of their report with me. If they do so, I’ll let you know.
[Update 11/14/11: I received the following reply from Barrick: “Barrick’s internal reports regarding such cases are under legal privilege and are not released publicly. Sorry we couldn’t be of more assistance in this case.” The problem with that response is the Mine Act requires a mine operator to investigate all accidents and make such records “available to the Secretary or his authorized representative and the appropriate State agency. Such records shall be open for inspection by interested persons.”]