[7/30/2012 Update below]
Just hours before a granite memorial was unveiled for the 29 men who were killed in the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine on April 5, 2010, another West Virginia coal miner was killed on-the-job. Johnny Mack Bryant II, 35, died at the Coal River Mining Fork Creek #10 mine in neighboring Boone County. The mine is about 20 miles from Whitesville, WV the location of the UBB memorial. The Charleston (WV) Gazette reports the fatal-injury incident occurred at about 4:15 am on July 27 when Mr. Bryant was fatally “pinned between a mine wall and the boom of a continuous mining machine.” The Gazette also indicates the victim had one year and 14 weeks experience as an underground mine worker.
I spoke this weekend to a couple of coal miners about the incident and we kicked around ideas of what might have gone wrong. First, we wondered whether Mr. Bryant was new to night-time work, or whether the mine managers used swing shift scheduling. As one old timer told me
“if you’re not used to working at night, those hoot owl shifts are tough. Some guys never really adjust to them.”
Second, we talked about training, specifically task training. The preliminary information in the new accounts suggest Mr. Bryant was part of a move crew. This group of laborers will gather equipment, track, conveyors and the like from one section in a mine and set it up in another section. The continuous mining machine itself would be part of the move, and it’s operated by remote control. Based on the news accounts, Mr. Bryant was fatally pinned between the machine’s powerful boom and the coal mine wall. Operating the mining machine with its special hand-held joysticks takes special skill and experience. We wondered whether the move crew had received task training on safely tramming the equipment. This is especially true if Mr. Bryant was using the remote control himself to move the mining machine.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has regulations on-the-book requiring task training for miners. It is especially designed for miners who are assigned to tasks in which they don’t have previous experience. We hope during MSHA’s accident investigation they look closely at the training records to not only determine whether task training was conducted, but its content, methods used and measures of effectiveness.
Finally, we wondered whether the continuous mining machine involved in Mr. Bryant’s death was equipped with a proximity detection devices. These systems can set off warning lights or even stop equipment from moving when it gets close to personnel or other equipment. Dozens and dozens of underground coal miners have been killed over the years after being pinned by remote-controlled mining machines, and several hundred more seriously injured.
In 2005, MSHA reached out to every underground coal mine operator in the country providing information about fatalities associated with remote controlled mining machines. The following year, MSHA approved two proximity-detection systems for use in U.S. underground mines, and today lists eight other systems being used in Australia, Canada, South Africa and other countries. U.S. mine operator Alliance Resources announced in 2010 that five of its underground mines were using proximity detection technology and others were scheduled to do the same. The 2011 corporate social responsibility reports for CONSOL (NYSE:CNX) and Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU) mention the companies’ leadership on testing and using proximity detection devices in their mines. This time last year, MSHA noted there about 1,150 continuous mining machines in use in underground coal mines in the U.S. MSHA data also indicates that only about 35 of them are equipped with proximity detectors. There is no regulation requiring this safety technology. As a result, hundreds of coal miners are at risk every day from being seriously injured or killed in the “red zone.”
After the initial accounts of Mr. Bryant’s death at Coal River Mining’s Fork Creek #10 mine, senior MSHA official Kevin Stricklin told The Huffington Post
“If we had what we call proximity detection, where a machine would shut down if it came within three feet of any other person, that person today would’ve been alive.”
MSHA proposed a rule in August 2011 which would require mine operators to install proximity detection devices on continuous mining machines. Its goal is to substantially reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries when workers are struck, pinned or crushed by this mobile equipment. The public hearings and comment period on the proposal ended in November 2011, with MSHA receiving written comments from 19 individuals and organizations. For the most part, the industry commenters said they support the idea of proximity detection devices, but had specific concerns about MSHA’s proposed 18 month deadline for installing them. Some coal operators said they’d need at least four or five years to identify the right technology, test and install it.
The ball is in the Labor Department’s court. In January 2012, MSHA said it expected to issue the final rule in June 2012 on proximity detection for remote-controlled continuous mining machines. It has not yet done so. It’s too late now to protect Johnny Mack Bryant II, 35, from the red-zone hazard that killed him. Let’s see whether this preventable work-related fatality gives the Labor Department a greater sense of urgency to finalize this life-saving regulation.
[7/30/12 Update: after writing this post I learned that another mine worker was killed on-the-job on the eve of the unveiling of the UBB memorial. Mr. Peter P. Faust, 48, was fatally injured on July 26, 2012 while working at a portable construction gravel pit operated by Strata Corporation in Richland County, Montana. ]