February 6, 2013 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

Greg Byers, 43, worked underground at Arch Coal/ICG’s Pocahontas Coal Mine in Beckley, WV.  On the afternoon of July 31, 2012, he suffered a serious crushing injury.  He died later that day.

Byers was a U.S. Marine who’d been working as a coal miner for five years.  His employment at the Pocahontas mine, which employs nearly 300 workers, began about a year earlier.  His job was “scoop operator.”  He used a hefty vehicle to scoop up the loose coal from the mine floor after the mining machine had done its work.  When there’s no coal to scoop, the equipment operator is often given other tasks, such as moving supplies underground and transporting 50 pound bags of rock dust.

On the day of his death, Byers had parked the scoop (Scoop #8) to change its battery and was standing next to the vehicle.  Another scoop struck Byers’ Scoop #8, pinning him against the coal mine rib (i.e., wall of the coal mine).   His co-workers administered first-aid, he was transported to the hospital, but succumb to his injuries.

How could Greg Byers’ death have been prevented?  Findings from the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration’s investigation point the way.  It’s not rocket science.

First, the area designated by the mine managers as the battery charging station was not far enough away from the adjacent travelway.  As a result, a portion of Scoop #8 extended into the travelway where it could be struck by another vehicle.  And that’s what happened.

The miner operating a second scoop (Scoop #11) was traveling in that adjacent entry.  He was operating Scoop #11 in reverse with the batteries raised.  Normally, this would provide the operator about a 16 inch field of vision.  The Scoop #11 operator said he didn’t initially see Byers’ Scoop #8 extend into the roadway.  When he did, he tried to steer away from it, but couldn’t miss it.  The collision moved Scoop #8 into Greg Byers, and he was crushed up into the coal rib. (See diagram on page 13 of MSHA’s report.)

MSHA’s investigators write that the charging station’s location:

“…did not provide sufficient space to prevent the bucket of the scoop from extending out into the section’s roadway entry while it was parked in the crosscut for charging.”

Had the charging been situated just a few feet more into the entry, the collision wouldn’t have happened.

Second, the visibility for Scoop #11’s driver was seriously impaired.  The operator of Scoop #11 was assigned to do rock dusting.  He’d finished one section of the mine and was traveling to retrieve additional bags of rock dust.  MSHA investigators’ note:

“…bags of rock dust [had been] stacked on the machine’s frame, behind the operator’s compartment, which obscured the scoop operator’s view while he was tramming the machine in reverse.”

Instead of a 16-inch opening for the scoop operator to see through, it was only 8 inches.  The stacked bags of rock dust impeded his view, which can already be restricted by the equipment cab designs and overall lack of light in underground coal mines.

Had a different system been in place to deliver rock dust where it’s needed while ensuring equipment operators don’t have obstructed views, the collision could have been prevented.

Both of these precautions seem like common sense to me, but MSHA doesn’t necessarily have regulations on the books guiding common sense.  Arch Coal will not receive a citation for the hazards that contributed to Gary Byers’ work-related death.  Instead, MSHA simply issued two “safeguard” notices that require the mine operator to institute better practices.  These “safeguards” do not come with a monetary penalty.

Greg Byers, 43, left behind a wife, Jane Ann, a daughter and two sons.

P.S. MSHA issued one citation to the Pocahontas coal mine  for failing to notify the agency within 15 minutes of the July 31, 2012 incident.  This requirement was put in place by Congress following the 2006 disaster at ICG’s Sago Mine which killed 12 coal miners.  The mine operator also received a citation for altering the scene of the accident.  The civil penalty amount for these violations have not yet been assessed.

One thought on “It’s not rocket science to prevent coal miner’s deaths

  1. Only in the coal industry can one receive a slap on the wrist for altering the scene of a fatal accident. I hope that is criminal conduct in WV & that the US Attorney is looking into it…

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