November 12, 2007 The Pump Handle 8Comment

What does it take for MSHA’s Richard Stickler and the Solicitor of Labor to do their jobs?

  • Front-page newspaper stories about MSHA’s failures?
  • A letter from a grieving mother?
  • A petition signed by other family-member victims of workplace fatalities?

Apparently, it took all this and more for MSHA finally to decide that the November 8, 2005 coal truck accident at the Alliance Resources’ Metikki Mine which killed Chad Cook, 25, was work-related. 

Chad Cook, a contract driver employed by the Utah-based Savage Services, died when his haulage truck, heavy-loaded with coal, ran off the private mine road in northern West Virginia.  It was a cold, dark November night, two years ago.  MSHA managers made a gross error when they decided that the fatality was NOT work-related, asserting that the crash occurred on a public road, not a workplace, and therefore, not subject to MSHA (or OSHA) regulations.* 

As a result, MSHA investigators didn’t do what they normally would (should) do after someone dies on mine property: examine the scene, the equipment, and the company records, and interview individuals who might have knowledge about how the fatality occurred and the company’s and contractor’s overall safety program.  Relevant questions, for example, would be:

  • What were the procedures at the scale house for weighing the coal trucks? 
  • Was the truck overloaded, making it more prone to an accident? 
  • What is Savage Services’ history with coal truck accidents, its maintenance procedures for coal trucks, etc., etc. 

By failing to conduct a timely fatality investigation, as required by the Mine Act (103(a)), all kinds of evidence (both physical and experiential) were lost or destroyed, making it extremely difficult to determine the cause of the accident, AND to prevent similiar incidents in the future. 

When I first heard about this situation in April 2007, from the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward, and from Mrs. Gay Cook herself (the victim’s mother), I was  infuriated.  First was the matter of MSHA determining originally that the fatality was not on mine property.  That was the first huge blunder.  But then, in April (17 months after Chad Cook’s death), when Ken Ward published a story, documenting that the fatality happened on mine property, MSHA squandered its opportunity to make things right.  Ken Ward’s story included a PHOTO near the accident scene, with a giant road sign which reads:

“This is a private road and not open for public use.  No trespassing.”

I saw both ineptitude and injustice in this two-year old Chad Cook story.  First, the ineptitude because MSHA failed to do its job, but second, when the error was pointed out more than six months ago in the pages of the Charleston Gazette, Assistant Secretary Stickler blew it.  After Ken Ward’s April 22 story ran, exposing MSHA (and the State of West Virginia’s mistake), I assured Mrs. Cook, “Surely, MSHA would right their wrong and promptly designate the death work-related.”  Mrs. Cook, a kind-hearted, soft-spoken woman who runs a small dairy farm in southern Pennsylvania, was more pragmatic, preferring to hear a decision officially from MSHA. 


Well, weeks turned into months, and as the two-year anniversary of Chad Cook’s death approached, MSHA officials remained officially silent on whether they would deem the fatality work-related.  Mrs. Cook decided to send a certified letter to Assistant Secretary Stickler, asking for someone (anyone, please!) to contact her.  Around the same time, Tammy Miser, founder of United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMWF) posted an on-line petition called “Justice for Chad.”   It begins:


“There are many injustices in this world and we all know life isn’t fair.  For some matters, there is supposed to be a system of checks and balances.”

Well, for the Cook family, that system of checks and balance completely failed.  Moreover, those checks and balances don’t work on their own; there are individuals —senior Department of Labor officials (i.e., Asst. Secretary Stickler, the Solicitor and Associate Solicitor of Labor, and the Admininstrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health) —who have the responsible to make sure the system works properly.  These senior individuals failed in their duty, they failed Chad Cook and his family, and they failed all of the nation’s miners.  


The “Justice for Chad” on-line petition has been signed by more than 70 people from across the U.S.A.   Names on the petition include family members who’ve lost loved ones in other workplace disasters, including:

  • Barbara Richardson (Maine) whose Dad, Ken Schoppee, 64, was killed at a remote logging site on August 29, 2007 in Maine, writing they “lost the light and love of our family.”

  • Loraine Gonzalez (Texas) who lost her son Christopher Doughty, 18, in a workplace accident, writing, “I understand your need for answers.”

  • Michelle Kahle (Wisconsin) and Kim White (Alaska) whose lost Tyler Kahle, 19, their son and nephew, respectively, in a fatal accident in July 2007 at a gold mine in Alaska. 

  • Kathleen Bollwahn (Alabama) whose son-in-law and ironworker Scott Heilert, 36, was killed on-the-job in 2004 in Wisconsin. 

  • Debbie and Melissa King (Massachusetts) who lost their husband and dad, Paul King, 50, by electrocution while he was working at Boston Logan’s airport.

  • Peggy Cohen (West Virginia) who lost her dad, Fred G. Ware, Jr., at the Sago mine in January 2006.  She writes: “The Cooks absolutely deserve an answer. …This is so unfair and unjust.  Everyone needs closure.  It may not always be what we want to hear, but we need that closure.  We need to keep this petition going so they can get their answer.”

  • Donald Coit Smith (Texas) whose son, Donald, 22, died on-the-job at a chicken processing in Texas.  He writes: “so many details will be lost due to time passing and evidence destroyed.  This goes to show how truly uncaring our government really is.”

  • Jo Ann Durbin (Ohio), whose husband Steve Durbin, 56, died in September 2003 in a trench collapse in Ohio, writing “after losing my husband and not knowing what happened, I know first-hand what the Cooks are going through.”

Apparently, it took this petition, a letter from a grieving family, and newspaper stories, to compel senior officials from MSHA and the Solicitor of Labor’s Office to correct their grievous mistake.  In a statement released on Friday, Nov. 9 (and reported by the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward,) MSHA announced:

“The Administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health, after consulting with the Labor Department’s Solicitor’s Office, determined that the November 2005 death of a truck driver occurring on a mine haulage road in West Virginia should be counted as a reportable death in MSHA’s statistics.  The Administrator found that the Agency had jurisdiction over the haulage road. …”

This should mean that MSHA will be preparing a fatality investigation report which documents, to the best of their ability given the TWO YEAR delay, the cause of the coal-truck crash.  I hope it provides some of the answers that the Cook family has been seeking, although Mrs. Cook has already been told that if she wants documents related to MSHA’s investigation (e.g., who was the manager who signed off on the inspector’s decision that the fatality was NOT on mine property), she could file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.  Ee-gads!  Somebody at MSHA could use some sensitivity training.


If this kind of giant mess-up occurred to someone in my family, I would want heads to roll.  Especially knowing that the two-year statute of limitations for filing any kind of legal case has expired.  But, Mrs. Cook seems to find a way, despite her grief, to look on the bright side.  Upon learning that MSHA would be preparing an accident report she said: 

“I’m hoping this will help bring us a little closure.  It’s going to help some, and I hope that it also helps other families.”

Sigh.   Haven’t we heard those selfless words so many times before from family-member victims of workplace fatalities.  There’s nothing that will bring back their loved one, but if it helps prevent another family from experiencing the same heartbreak and loss, they will kindly oblige.



*Note: Get this: if a worker is killed on a public road, it doesn’t even have to be reported to OSHA!  29 CFR 1904.39 says: “Do I have to report every fatality or multiple hospitalization incident resulting from a motor vehicle accident? No, you do not have to report all of these incidents.  If the motor vehicle accident occurs on a public street or highway, and does not occur in a construction work zone, you do not have to report the incident to OSHA.  However, these injuries must be recorded on your OSHA injury and illness records, if you are required to keep such records.”

8 thoughts on “Justice for Chad Cook: What Took MSHA So Long??

  1. God bless Chad, his mother and the rest their family. God bless Ken, Davitt, Tammy and Celeste for keeping this on the front burner.

    Shame on MSHA, police investigators, OSHA, and whoever else can be included in the list of people who decided to ignore this accident. Shame on Chad’s employer for not caring about one of their own! To put his family thru additional trauma and destroying evidence should be a criminal offense-in fact I believe it is. I think the next stop would be the local DA for filing charges against those responsible for destroying evidence and finding an Attorney to file a suit against all those responsible. Do you think they would pay attention then?

    WE CANNOT STOP TALKING, WE MUST BE LOUDER AND DELIBRATE! Please pass on information about family rights to everyone you know and encourage them to contact the lawmakers in their state to change this. Don’t just think about it-DO IT!

  2. You know it wouldn’t hurt for them to at the very least to apologize. God knows she deserves more but at least it would be a start. The Cook’s didn’t deserve the loss let alone the insensitive and inept investigation.

    They really do need some mandated people skills before they take on this type of responsibility. It is not just a paycheck; it is a job that deals with the limb, life and death. If these organizations really want to make a difference they need to have more contact with the families and workers and it wouldn’t hurt for them to have a grief counselor or organization on hand to help out.

    Not all of OSHA is this way I have met several who really do care but it is far and few between. I think most feel they are not there to investigate the death so why bother.

    Hell they probably treat their animals better. There was more hell raised when our animals were dying from the dog food…how many of them scrambled to check their pets out? Damn it do the same for the people!

    *PS before anyone slams me I have two rescue dogs and yes they are my babies so don’t bite back please.

  3. Regarding reporting fatalities that occur on public roads:

    First of all, whether a fatality is reported to OSHA or MSHA does not necessarily have a bearing on whether or not the fatality is “work-related.” For example the annual count of workplace fatalities released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics comes from the CFOI program (Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries), and includes many workplace fatalities that are not reported to MSHA or OSHA. In Oregon, for example, our state count for CFOI is usually about double the count of fatalities reported to OSHA or accepted for Workers’ Compensation because the CFOI count also includes self-employed workers, independent contractors, federal employees, etc. which usually fall outside of the compensatory or regulatory jurisdiction. In other words, what is and isn’t reported to MSHA or OSHA doesn’t affect the count of fatalities released by the Dept. of Labor each year.

    I believe that OSHA decided some years back that investigating MVA fatalities would be a duplication of efforts since these fatalities are also investigated by the Department of Transportation and other law enforcement officials. Federal OSHA used to require the reporting of fatal motor vehicle accidents, but the federal reporting rule was amended a few years ago to exclude MVAs. However, many state-plan OSHA authorities, including Washington, Oregon and Michigan (and perhaps others that I’m not aware of), have gone back to the original reporting rule for fatal motor vehicle accidents.

    The main reason that the state plans have decided to change back to the original rule – Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of workplace fatalities in the US.

  4. Tasha,
    Thanks for adding CFOI in the mix. You expose yet another disconnect between our workplace safety and health agencies and the data sources. It’s possible that Mr. Chad Cook’s death was “counted” in CFOI (because the death was reported in the newspaper and I understand that among other sources, BLS uses newspaper accounts to cross-reference their data,) but for the family, if MSHA doesn’t deem it to be work-related, then the family is left outside of the system of regulatory and legal protections. I’ve never know BLS to confirm or release their data in such a way so that a family member could see if their particular loved-ones death is in the “count.” Do they? This might be an interesting avenue for a family member to pursue if they can’t get MSHA to deem a death ‘work-related’ — let’s see if BLS counted it as work-related. Very interesting.

    Thanks also for letting us know that some OSHA-State Plan States do require reporting of motor vehicle accidents. One of the best ways to find out how we might PREVENT workers from dying (or being injured) in motor vehicle accidents is to have them reported and assess trends in the data. In public health, data collection should be about assessing information to see if we can PREVENT harm.

  5. Celeste, you are absolutely right. To family members, and for the sake of prevention of future aspects, the regulatory inclusion is much more important than being included in the statistics. I just wanted to clarify in case it led to the assumption that this was affecting the annual fatality statistics.

    A good CFOI analyst will use all possible data sources to cross-reference cases, including newspaper reports. However the CFOI data is considered highly confidential by BLS. Releasing information about whether a fatality was included would be considered a big no-no. In fact, I believe the possibilty you cite is one major reason CFOI keeps such a strong grip on the data. They don’t want CFOI to end up in litigation as a validation that the fatality was “work-related.”

  6. By the way, sorry it took so long to reply. It’s been crazy over here… My fiance was in the hospital last week due to anemia caused by ulcerative colitis. Oh, the stories I could tell about the healthcare system. Don’t even get me started….

  7. Sorry to hear about your fiance. Oh yeah–health care, that’s another system that is in drastic need of reform.

  8. I’m a Miner who was wrongly terminated for complaining about real safety issues at the surface mine where I worked for over ten years as an electrician / instrumentation technician.
    I found that the MSHA Investigation of my 105C Mine Act wrongful termination case (docket:WEST 2005-568-DM), and the ALJ’s evaluation of the same was obviously biased towards supporting the Mine Operators’ actions. Also MSHA refused, under the FOIA Act, to provide 105C Investigation acquired statements of Safety Manager and Shift Supervisor that pertained directly to 105C Safety complaints(MSHA FOIA tracking #581386). I found that the 105C Miners’ provisions for protection against discriminatory actions by the operator are not and possibly never have been enforced (based on web based records). The result is an undermining of confidence by Miners to participate in Mine safety issues, which was the primary purpose of the 105C. Mine Operators Inadequate training and indifference towards Miner training requirements (and non-enforcement by MSHA) is brought out in this case.

    If any Miners’ advocate or Miner with similar experiences wants copies of my case transcripts, etc. please let me know.
    Jayson Turner 661 242-3000

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