Saturday, June 03, 2006

Miners Killed In "Dogholes:" Freak Accidents, Worker Error and Drugs?

Kris Maher of the Wall St. Journal took a close look earlier this week at what miners call "dogholes," small, undercapitalized mines that have become economical -- and deadly -- since coal prices have surged. Eleven out of 33 coal mining deaths this year, and 14 out of 22 deaths last year occurred in mines employing fewer than 50 people. Maher also reveals the mining industry's rather shocking analysis of the reasons for the rising death rate in American mines.
A report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which examined data from 1988 to 1997, found the fatality rate at coal mines with fewer than 50 employees was 4.24 times the rate at mines with 250 or more workers. According to data from the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration, in each of the past three years, the fatality rate at underground coal mines with fewer than 50 workers was higher than the rate for all underground coal mines.
Demand for coal is rising due to utilities switching from expensive natural gas, using US steelmakers using more metallurgical coal, and the rising demand for coal to make steel in China, and the price of coal has risen from $29 in 2002 to $58 per ton last year.

Many of the these mines are owned by small companies that contract for the large coal companies. And although coal prices are high, the Journal points out that many of the smaller companies still operate close to the edge.
It often costs more per ton to extract coal from lower-quality seams. Many small operators don't own the land they mine; instead they mine on a contract basis, selling the coal at below-market prices to larger operators who own the mineral rights to the property.
So what's the problem? Nothing much to worry about, according to coal company executives.
Most fatalities that occur in mines of any size are the result of "freak accidents," and some are due to human error, says [president of the Kentucky Coal AssociationBill] Caylor. The term "dogholes" is a sensational one, used by mine-safety "zealots," he adds. "But there is some legitimacy to this," he says. "There are some operators that are ruthless that have been the bad apple in the entire barrel."


Mr. Caylor, of the Kentucky Coal Association, believes the best way to improve safety is for state and federal inspectors to observe the working habits of a miner "and teach him how to work safer, rather than sitting there as a policeman, writing a ticket."
"Freak accidents?" "Human error?"

Wrong, wrong, wrong say most mine safety experts:
"As long as prices stay high, you're going to get the marginal producers coming in to capture a share of the market," says R. Larry Grayson, chairman of the department of mining and nuclear engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla. He says the danger of accidents increases when smaller mines proliferate because they tend to have less-experienced workers, use older equipment and mine harder-to-reach coal seams that are passed over by big companies.
And this:
Workers at small mines tend to be less experienced and more economically desperate than those at big mines, says [former MSHA official, Tony] Oppegard. "You've got this permanent base of unemployed people in eastern Kentucky," he says. "You'll always have people who are willing to work under whatever conditions that you impose."
And do these incidents, described in the Journal article sound like "freak accidents" or "human error that could have been prevented by "teaching miners to work more safely?"
"The 13th coal miner killed this year, Cornelius Yates, died Jan. 10 in a Pikeville, Ky., mine that employed nine. The 44-year-old was operating a machine used to drive six-foot-long bolts into the mine roof to secure it when the roof collapsed and killed him.

In that case, federal investigators determined the roof was unstable. "The condition was widespread and obvious and should have been detected by a reasonable prudent mine examiner," investigators wrote. The company was cited for safety violations related to the accident, but fines haven't been set yet, says MSHA.
And how would more training have saved the lives of the 11 of the 12 dead Sago miners who suffocated, or the two Aracoma miners who died in a belt fire or three of the five miners killed at the Kentucky Darby who suffocated to death after the explosion?

Then there are those who say that the problem with small mines is that they don't do enough drug testing and Congressman Charlie Norwood (R-GA) wants to drug test every miner, and indeed, when David Sherman Morris was killed last December at H&D Mining Inc., of Cumberland, Ky after being struck by a loaded coal hauler used to transport coal inside the mine, his urine showed that he had been smoking marijuana in recent days or weeks. Morris's left leg was severed and his right leg was crushed. So drugs were to blame, right?

Not according to the MSHA investigation.
Instead, they pointed to errors and negligence of mine management. Investigators said a major contributing cause was that side boards -- which allow more coal to be carried -- had been attached to the coal hauler, and coal was loaded 60 inches high, obstructing the view of the person operating it. The height of the mine where the accident occurred was 67 inches.

The company's procedures for operating equipment underground placed Mr. Morris in a dangerous position when he was struck from behind, investigators said. They also determined "this injury became a fatality because basic first-aid was not properly performed" by mine personnel. No fine has been issued for the accident yet, according to MSHA.
The other problem is that smaller mines are not generally unionized. The Journal reports "miners say raising safety concerns at small mines can mean risking one's job, as well as future employment at other mines" and points out that 30 of the 33 miners killed so far this year worked in non-union mines.

More mine safety stories here.