When Rodney Osborne was crushed to death in a Boone County coal mine in June, a key piece of safety equipment meant to prevent such fatalities had been turned off, according to a state investigative report made public on Monday.
Osborne, 32, of Artie, died after he was pinned between the coal-cutting head of a continuous mining machine and the mine wall on June 13 at Rockwell Mining LLC’s Gateway Eagle Mine. Rockwell Mining is controlled by Blackhawk Mining, and the Gateway Eagle Mine is near Wharton, according to federal records.
The continuous mining machine was equipped with a “proximity detection” system that deactivates the machine when it gets too close to workers. But Osborne had turned off the safety system, something that a state inspector said workers at the Gateway Eagle Mine had been shown how to do.
“They did this from time to time,” said John Kinder, inspector-at-large for the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training’s regional office in Danville. “They would just hit the bypass and go on. Everybody knew how to do it.”
On Monday, Kinder presented a report on his agency’s investigation into Osborne’s death to the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety. Osborne is one of six coal miners killed on the job this year in West Virginia, a number which is double the number killed in 2016, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
State inspectors issued seven citations to Rockwell Mining, including two that state mine safety Director Greg Norman said would each carry a $10,000 fine. State law allows such “special assessments” in cases involving deaths, imminent danger, or a high degree of negligence. Normally, violations of state mine safety and health rules can draw fines of up to $5,000.
A lawyer and a safety manager for Rockwell Mining attended Monday’s board meeting, but did not address the board and after the meeting declined to comment on the state’s report.
The way Kinder died — being pinned between a fast-moving piece of underground equipment and a mine wall — is one of the more common ways coal miners are killed or seriously hurt.
Between 1984 and 2013, at least 75 preventable fatalities in underground coal mines resulted from pinning, crushing and striking accidents, according to MSHA. Thirty-four of those involved continuous mining machines, MSHA has said.
For years, safety advocates had pushed for state and federal regulators to require mine operators to use “proximity detection” systems that would automatically shut off mining machines and other equipment when workers get too close.
West Virginia’s mine safety board repeatedly put off imposing such a requirement, even after the widow of a miner who was crushed to death personally appealed to the board members.
The board did, in April 2014, approve a rule to require proximity detection, but it also gave mine operators three years to install the equipment. Earlier this year, lawmakers stepped in to extend the compliance date from July 1, 2017, until March 2018, to match the MSHA deadline.
The state’s report on Osborne’s death says that the Gateway Eagle Mine’s continuous mining machine was already equipped with a proximity detection system. With such systems, miners wear small electronic locater devices, and the mining machines shut off automatically when miners come too close.
According to the report, Osborne had just used the remote control continuous mining machine to complete his last cut in the operation’s No. 3 entry, a 19-foot-wide tunnel, at about 8:40 p.m. on June 13. Another miner, Densil Blankenship, hauled the last load of coal from that entry, and then parked his shuttle car so he could come back to help Osborne move the continuous mining machine to a new location.
“Mr. Blankenship walked up to the continuous miner conveyor boom and observed Mr. Osborne pinned between the continuous miner cutter head and the coal rib on the operator’s side,” the state report said.
Other workers then scrambled to move the continuous mining machine so they could free Osborne, the report said. Osborne was carried out of the mine on a mantrip, and then pronounced dead at 9:37 p.m., the report said.
The state report said that the continuous mining machine’s proximity detection system had an “emergency stop override,” or ESO, that was to be used in certain emergency situations — such as if the machine was damaged in a rock fall and needed to be moved — but was not intended to allow the proximity detection system to be turned off simply to make it easier to move the mining machine from one part of the mine to another during routine operations.
But, the report concluded, Osborne had engaged the ESO after completing his final cut in one entry and then used the remote control to begin moving the continuous mining machine to another part of the mine, all while standing in the “red zone” that is considered too close to the machine.
“While tramming the continuous miner, the continuous miner operator was pinned between the cutter head and the coal rib,” the report said. “Misuse of the ESO (Emergency Stop Override) function in such a manner renders the proximity detection system incapable of stopping the equipment and preventing contact with persons. This is a violation of a health and safety statute, is of a serious nature, and involved a fatality.”
Kinder said that some employees interviewed during the state’s investigation said they were aware of prior incidents where the proximity detection systems had been improperly turned off at the Gateway Eagle Mine.
“Well, some did, but some said they weren’t aware of it,” Kinder told the board. “Regardless, they were shown by somebody how to bypass this. I hate to say that, but they’ve been shown how to do this. And in order to remove it for this independent purpose you would have had to have been shown.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.