A worker crushed to death by a machine at a Western Kentucky coal mine in January wasn’t wearing a safety device designed to shut down the machine if operators got too close while it was moving, federal investigators concluded.
The mine operator, Webster County Coal LLC, didn’t provide a way to securely attach the safety device to operators of continuous-mining machines, according to a report from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The report listed that as one root cause of the accident that killed Nathan Phillips, 36, on Jan. 19 at the company’s Dotiki underground mine.
Managers at the mine were aware that there had been several times when Phillips wasn’t wearing the safety shut-off device as required, but they hadn’t taken steps to fix the problem, the report said.
Another primary cause of the accident was that the company failed to make sure miners didn’t work or travel in the danger zone close to continuous-mining machines while they were being moved, MSHA said in the report.
The Kentucky Division of Mine Safety had concluded in an earlier report that Phillips wasn’t wearing the safety device when he was hit.
Federal and state regulators cited the company, which is controlled by Alliance Resource Partners LP.
Phillips operated a continuous-mining machine at the Dotiki mine. The machine has a rotating drum on the front to grind out coal at the working face of an underground mine.
Operators stand near continuous miners and use remote-control devices to run them.
The machine Phillips was using was 36 feet long and weighed 65 tons, according to the accident report from the Kentucky Division of Mine Safety.
The machine was equipped with a proximity-detection system, in which sensors on the machine communicate electronically with a component worn by the operator.
The system is designed to activate a warning light and sound if the operator gets too close, and to shut down the heavy machine if the operator is in an area called the red zone that is supposed to be off-limits while the machine is moving.
MSHA has required proximity-detection systems on continuous miners since March 2015. The Dotiki mine had its machines equipped before the deadline.
Phillips was moving the continuous miner from one cut to another about 4 p.m. when the conveyor boom on the back swung and hit him at chest level, pinning him to the side of the mine, according to the MSHA report.
Stewart Jordan, a shuttle-car operator, saw the accident and ran to help Phillips, but he didn’t know how to use the remote control unit to move the boom, according to the accident report.
Jordan remembered that Jordan Stanley, who was running a roof-bolting machine nearby, knew how to operate a continuous miner and ran to him for help.
Two mechanics who had heard Jordan call for help on the mine radio supported Phillips’ body while Stanley moved the boom away from him, then began first-aid efforts. One of them, Patrick Scott, was an emergency medical technician.
Other miners cleared shuttle cars out of the way so an underground ambulance could take Phillips out of the mine, but efforts to revive him failed.
An emergency-room doctor at Western Baptist Hospital pronounced him dead at 5:43 p.m. Phillips was married and had three children.
Just after the accident, another mine employee saw the piece of the proximity-detection system designed to be worn by Phillips lying on the mine floor some distance from him.
The miner, who didn’t know how badly Phillips was hurt, was afraid that would get Phillips in trouble with the company, so he moved the device to the site where Phillips was pinned, according to the state investigative report.
Tests indicated that Phillips had not worn the transmitter for about 30 minutes before the accident, according to the MSHA report.
The state report said Phillips carried the transmitter in a loose tool pouch that was not designed for that purpose.
The foreman, Keith Brown II, and other miners said they were aware of earlier occasions when Phillips either dropped the transmitter or it had fallen out of the pouch while he was running the mining machine, according to the MSHA report.
Brown had even kidded Phillips that he was going to require him to wear two transmitters in case one fell out of the pouch, MSHA said.
Despite that, Brown — who was badly hurt in 2008 when he was hit by a continuous-mining machine — didn’t tell investigators about anything he’d done to make sure Phillips wore the safety device at all times, MSHA said.
That 2008 accident should have alerted mine managers to take the necessary steps to prevent crushing incidents involving the machines, the report said.
The failure to do so was an unwarrantable failure to comply with a mandatory safety standard, MSHA said.
That is an important distinction because it could mean a higher fine for the company.
There have been two deaths at Kentucky coal mines this year. If that holds for two more weeks, it will tie the state’s record-low fatality total.