Safety Stop Off in West Virginia Miner Death

By MICHAEL VIRTANEN | October 3, 2017

State investigators have concluded that a miner overrode an emergency stop function on a remote-controlled mining machine that crushed him in June, and that warning lights on the machine weren’t working either.

Rodney S. Osborne, 32, of Artie, West Virginia, was killed as he worked alone inside Rockwell Mining LLC’s Gateway Eagle Mine. He was repositioning a continuous miner – a machine with blades that carve into a seam and feed coal into a rotating steel drum – when the machine pinned him against an underground wall or pillar.

The Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training’s investigators concluded, based on data from the machine’s safety system, that the emergency stop override function had been engaged when Osborne was in a restricted zone alongside the cutter head. That override rendered the system incapable of detecting that a person wearing a safety monitor had come into the “red zone” and shutting the machine down.

Investigators also found that the red and green driver lights weren’t alternating, as they should have been, to indicate that the system was being bypassed.

Their report said misusing safety equipment this way violates a statute as well as company policy: The operators’ manual says nobody should be standing alongside these machines when they’re being moved, and should remain at least 4 feet outside the “red zone.”

Citing the investigation, downloaded data and sworn testimony, however, the report suggests Osborne wasn’t the only operator working without the benefit of this safety system. The report concluded that the stop override “is not being used for its designed purpose” at the mine, and that operators are using it instead while repositioning the continuous mining machines.

Osborne, with 10 years of mining industry experience, began working at the Boone County mine in January, joining about 116 people working there in two shifts, and was assigned to operate the machine in April. He began work on June 13 at 10:45 a.m., about four hours before his regular shift, and was killed 10 hours later, the report said.

In a June 19 letter to the West Virginia office, Rockwell Mining senior vice president Jeff Sands wrote that the company’s policy effective that day prohibits continuous miner operators from using the override except in response to imminent danger to a miner. Otherwise a manager has to approve it and ensure it’s done safely.

Deaths in U.S. coal mines have increased this year with 12 so far, compared to a record low of eight last year. Federal safety officials say workers who are new to a mine have been especially vulnerable to fatal accidents.

The underground Eagle Mine complex produces metallurgical coal and is owned by Blackhawk Mining based in Lexington, Kentucky. The company had said it was cooperating fully with state and federal investigators.

The report was presented Monday to the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.

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