A number of fatal mine accidents occurred in the United States between January 1 and September 22, 2014.

Coal Mines

  1. Four underground employees on foot were crushed by equipment in operation.
  2. Two employees were killed by unblocked equipment they worked on.
  3. Two died when their equipment (such as a haul truck or dozer) went over an edge.
  4. Two employees underground were struck by ground (rib burst).
  5. One employee contacted high voltage during equipment repair (troubleshooting).

Metal/Nonmetal Mines

  1. Three truck drivers on foot were crushed by equipment in operation.
  2. Five employees were killed by unblocked equipment they worked on.
  3. Two operators died when their equipment went over an edge.
  4. Two employees, underground scalers, were fatally impacted by ground fall.
  5. One employee contacted high voltage.

In addition to these, there were other metal-nonmetal accidents: three employees were killed in falls from heights; one employee was entangled in a drill; one employee was killed when equipment burst during repairs, and one employee was killed when an embankment gave way.

The five tragic incidents listed in the bulleted items above demonstrate a remarkable parallel between coal and metal/nonmetal mines fatalities. Eleven coal miners and 13 metal/nonmetal miners—many in sand, gravel, stone, and cement operations—died from similar causes. The top three hit close to home at metal-nonmetal mines. Regarding some of these incidents, the evidence showed that

  • Three truck drivers may have remained safe had they stayed in their trucks.
  • Blocked equipment fatalities may have been avoided if miners had blocked equipment so it could not move unexpectedly.
  • If problems of equipment control could have been anticipated, safety may have prevailed.

Operator Precautions

For mine operators, the challenge of injury and fatality prevention is ever-present. While mindful of industry dangers, managers often feel conditions are safer at their own operations. Employees often feel safe as well––and therein lies the danger. Employees are not safe unless they make a point of ensuring safety at all times. Employers must help them.

Management can help improve safety through regular supervisor training. Supervisors can help by employing lessons learned with their crews, stressing the importance of constant vigilance. Great successes in accident prevention have been achieved at mines where there is a clear “right way” and a “wrong way” to do everything—where proper procedures have become second-nature to all employees.

It is critical that supervisors show genuine concern for employees’ safety. This includes retraining, counseling, and disciplining employees when they do not follow procedures. It is also essential that supervisors set a good example, exemplifying safe practices in their own work and clearly communicating to workers their required duties, so that they know what is expected of them. These practices send a compelling non-verbal message to employees. If workers believe that management’s expectations differ from stated requirements, they will do what they think is “expected,” which might include following a bad example. It is imperative that the workplace culture value performance that is both efficient and conscientious regarding safety.

MSHA Enforcement

With an increase in fatal accidents this year, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is ratcheting up enforcement. Trends may have little significance on how individual mines operate. Workers are not likely to spend a lot of time worrying about the possibility of a serious accident if the mine in which they work has never experienced one. Statistics may demonstrate danger, but mine accident statistics, like highway accident statistics, are hard for individuals to relate to on a practical level.

MSHA, which is largely driven by statistics, operates on the principal that it can drive fatalities down by pushing enforcement up. As Assistant Secretary of Labor Joseph A. Main noted in a news release,

MSHA has undertaken a number of measures to prevent mining deaths, injuries and illnesses: increased surveillance and strategic enforcement through impact inspections at mines with troubling compliance histories; enhanced pattern of violations actions; special initiatives such as “Rules to Live By,” which focuses attention on the most common causes of mining deaths; and outreach efforts.

In response to serious violations, MSHA uses its investigative and prosecutorial authority vigorously. MSHA assesses civil penalties against managers and supervisors every year (265 in 2012 and 169 in 2013). Criminal referrals to the U.S. Department of Justice also occur (13 in 2012 and 8 in 2013). MSHA is also intent on investigating every complaint by a miner who claims discriminatory discharge or retaliation for protected mine safety activity (224 in 2012, and 201 in 2013). MSHA employs other tools, such as pattern of violations enforcement, but none of these will prevent accidents unless extraordinary measures are taken by operators to increase vigilance for unsafe conditions and risky job performance.

The Bottom Line

A fatal or serious mining accident, taking the lives of colleagues, friends, and family members, is always a tragic event. The loss is devastating. Investigation and enforcement will surely follow—immediately, after the required 15-minute report to MSHA—and MSHA may find causes and violations and assess heavy penalties. Regardless of agency involvement, such losses have a lasting impact on individuals and organizations.