Safety lapses to blame for Kentucky coal miner’s death, feds say

Hubert Grubbs Jr.
Hubert Grubbs Jr. Facebook page

Kentucky’s lone coal-mining death this year happened because of safety lapses by the company and miners, according to a federal report.

Hubert Grubbs Jr., 29, died on March 28 in Harlan County when he got snagged in a moving conveyor belt, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said in its report on the accident.

The accident happened at the underground D-11 Panther mine near Cumberland, operated by Blackjewel L.L.C. Federal records list Jeffery A. Hoops as controller.

Grubbs and another miner, James Belt, had turned off the power switch to one of 12 conveyor belts — used to carry coal out of the mine — in order to make repairs.

As they worked, a mine examiner, Travis Saylor, came in contact with a power line to the conveyor belt system while driving a personnel carrier, pulling apart the wires.

When Saylor spliced the wires to fix the line, that inadvertently started the conveyor belt Grubbs was repairing, according to MSHA’s report.

Saylor had not been trained to make that type of repair, the report said.

Another problem was that Grubbs and Belt had not disengaged, locked out and tagged a disconnect switch for the cable supplying power to the belt drive, the report said.

If the miners had done that, no one else could have returned power to the belt drive.

Belt told investigators that in most cases, workers at the mine locked out electrical power to the conveyor belt drive before starting repairs.

The miners didn’t do that before the fatal accident because the repair crew, which usually included three workers, was one person short, the report said.

When the belt started moving, Grubbs got tangled in the loose end of a ratchet chain and was dragged over the rollers.

When Saylor realized something was wrong, he yanked apart the wires he had just spliced and the conveyor stopped, but it had moved about 585 feet with Grubbs on it, the report said.

Grubbs was still conscious and talking when other mines rushed to free him from the belt and try to stem his bleeding, but he stopped breathing about 50 minutes after the accident while co-workers were taking him to the surface on a personnel carrier.

One miner performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation until the crew got Grubbs to a waiting ambulance about 10 minutes later, at 3:15 a.m., but Grubbs did not survive.

The accident happened because the mine operator allowed employees to take part in work on a conveyor belt without implementing proper lock-out and tag-out procedures to make sure the power was off, MSHA said in its report.

Then, the belt started because another improperly repaired an electrical circuit, according to the report.

MSHA cited the mine over the alleged violations.

The mine had 59 employees when the accident happened, with two shifts running coal and a third shift for maintenance.

It produced 219,193 tons of coal in 2017.

The mine’s rate of work days lost because of non-fatal injuries last year was 4.09, compared to a national average of 3.66 for similar mines, MSHA said.

Grubbs’ death is the only coal-related fatality in Kentucky this year, according to MSHA’s records.

There have been five deaths total, three in West Virginia and one in Indiana. There were 15 coal-mining deaths nationwide in 2017, including two in Kentucky.