Report: Operator failure led to fatality in Harlan County mine

The death of a Harlan County coal miner who was crushed in a rock fall resulted from operator failures that included not properly inspecting the mine or correcting an obvious hazard, according to federal regulators.

The findings were in a report issued by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration on the death of Mark Frazier, 48, at Lone Mountain Processing’s Huff Creek No. 1 mine, an underground mine near Holmes Mill.

Frazier and other employees were using machinery to clean up loose rock and coal in the mine early March 25 when a large slab fell and pinned him between the floor and the frame of a machine called a ramcar, the report said.

The part of the slab that hit Frazier was 8 feet long and weighed more than 5 tons, the report said.

The rock also knocked foreman Willard Hickey to the floor, but he was not badly hurt.

Other crew members rushed to try to free Frazier.

They couldn’t, but another miner, Brian Napier, swiveled the ramcar enough to create space for miner Tim Daniels to start CPR on Frazier, according to the report of the investigation.

The miners lifted the rock off Frazier a few minutes later with another piece of equipment and then took him out of the mine, continuing CPR all the while, the report said.

An ambulance took Frazier to a spot four minutes away to put him aboard a helicopter, but the flight paramedics and nurse said he was dead, according to the report.

Frazier had more than 26 years of experience as a miner. He had worked at Lone Mountain Processing in the 1990s but left, then returned in 2001 and had been with the company since.

Frazier’s death is one of two at Kentucky coal mines this year, equaling last year’s total.

The rock fall happened in an area of the mine where employees had blasted and drilled to create a chute to be used in moving coal.

The work left an area of exposed hard sandstone along the top of the walls of the mine.

Miners installed some horizontal bolts to secure the rock, but severe sloughing in the softer coal below in the walls created overhanging brows of rock with no vertical support, the report said.

A piece of that rock fell on Frazier.

MSHA said one root cause of the accident was that mine managers failed to make sure there was an adequate inspection of the mine, called a pre-shift examination, before employees went to work.

Such an exam, which is required by law, would have allowed the operator to spot and correct the hazardous conditions at the accident site, the report said.

Another cause was that mine management failed to make sure there were adequate supports installed to keep the rock overhangs from falling.

The report said a foreman acknowledged seeing a crack in the wall of the mine but didn’t take immediate action to correct the problem.

The rock fell and killed Frazier minutes later, the report said.

Officials saw several hazards at the site of the accident during the investigation, including cracks in the mine wall and excessive widths of the mine tunnel, called an entry, that violated the plan for guarding against roof falls, the report said.

“These hazardous conditions were obvious to the most casual observer and had existed for an extended period of time,” the report said.

Investigators concluded that the mine operator had engaged in “aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence.”

MSHA said in the report that in the two years preceding the accident, inspectors had cited the operator four times for failure to adequately support mine walls where employees had to work or travel.

However, the reported injury rate at the mine was significantly lower than the national rate for similar mines in 2015.

MSHA cited the mine for several violations related to the fatal rock fall.

The current controller for the mine is Arch Coal. It produced more than 560,000 tons of coal in 2015 and listed 110 employees in the second quarter of this year.