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The Upper Big Branch mine was a bituminous coal mine based in Raleigh County, West Virginia. It was owned by Massey Energy, who were the 6th largest coal suppliers in 2009 (EIA, 2009, p. 25). The geology of the mine was mainly composed of sandstone and some shale (McAteer, 2011, p. 69). The mine had previously been described as a gassy mine as methane enters from the fractures in the mine floor (Berkes, H, 2011).
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The site operated on a shift system, with a day shift, night shift and a handover period at approximately 5:30am. On Monday, April 5th, 2010, the day shift started as usual and coal was being produced at the longwall with no time lost. Production stopped at 10am due a fault with the longwall shearer, it was reported by the crew that the hinge pin on the ranging arm was missing (Page, N. et al, 2011, p.17). Production did not resume until 1:30pm. Production continued with no lost time until 2:30pm. At 2:30pm, there was an update from the fire boss that the shearer was cutting towards the tailgate and was currently at shield 115, he also reported a methane % of 0.0 and an oxygen % of 20.8. At 2:58pm, the longwall shearer is still operating towards the tailgate. At 3:00pm, the longwall shearer is cut off remotely and all high voltage power and water is manually disconnected. At approximately 3:02pm, a massive explosion occurred inside the of the upper big branch mine, cutting all underground power and telecommunications. The ventilation systems began to indicate failures as dust and debris started to bellow out of the surface portals.
The explosion was caused by a methane gas leak being ignited and then manifested itself into a coal dust explosion. 29 out of the 31 men underground were killed making it the worst mining accident in the United States since 1970. The MSHA were not informed until 25 minutes after the event. Evacuation did not begin until at least 30 minutes after the explosion. The emergency services were not notified until 4:22pm (Page, N. et al, 2011, p.22).
It is apparent from the systematic failures that led to this disaster that the blame falls at the feet of the Massey Energy management. Massey Energy management failed to safeguard their employees and neglected even the most basic of health and safety guidelines as is highlighted in the final accident report published by the MHSA. (Page, N. et al, 2011).
Firstly, Massey Energy had no enforced procedure to detect methane concentrations throughout the mine, measurements were taken but not to industry standards. The methane detector at the Bleeder system in UBB had not been switched on since March 18th, 2010, which allowed almost a month for methane to accumulate undetected. This, in combination with Massey Energy’s failure to comply to the approved ventilation plan led to a completely unnecessary increase in risk associated with methane accumulation. The ventilation implemented at UBB led to erratic air currents and was inadequate to dilute and remove methane from the mine floor (Page, N. et al, 2011, p.65). Another glaring example of Massey Energy neglecting basic health and safety standards is their inability to sufficiently deal with significant amounts of coal dust and loose coal in the mine. Methane ignitions are not uncommon in operating coal mines, but with an excess of coal dust in the air and around the mine the situation becomes more severe. Coal dust can fuel a methane ignition into an explosion, which is what happened at UBB. The situation could have easily been remediated and that fact that it wasn’t leads into another significant failure from Massey Energy. There is no evidence that the mine was sufficiently rock-dusted which was have worked to make the residual coal dust inert and prevent it from igniting (Page, N. et al, 2011, p.3).
Lax enforcement of basic health and safety procedures were not the only failures that led to this disaster. Technical faults with the longwall shearer also contributed heavily to the explosion. The cutting bits on the tail drum (that remove the coal) created sparks and heat on both the floor and the roof of the shaft while cutting through a sandstone layer in the coal (Berkes, H. 2011). This is usually dealt with by a series of water ‘sprays’ attached to the longwall shearer. On the model used at UBB, the shearer had at least four different types of sprays on the shearer, that generated 3 different spray patterns. (Page, N. et al, 2011, p. 120) These sprays dispensed water from the local river as it operated, supressing the sparks and heat as they were created. This was meant to minimise the risk of a methane ignition. However, at UBB, the sprayers on the longwall shearer were shown to have severe wear and were not fully operational. On top of that, seven of the individual sprays on the tail drum had been removed prior to the explosion. This is significant as this meant that the sprayers could not maintain the required water pressure so did not comply with the approved ventilation plan (Page, N. et al, 2011, p. 115).
Alongside the health and safety and technical failures at UBB, there were also a series of contributing factors that were based on Massey Energy ignoring mine legislation. Massey Energy was shown to have broken the federal mine safety and health act of 1977 (MSHA, 2011). Massey Energy were shown to intimidate their workers into not making safety complaints. The MSHA had not received a single complaint from UBB since June 8th, 2006. (Page, N. et al, 2011, p. 58) They had also not received any complaint related to any potential hazards before the explosion. This was due to workers at this mine fearing for their jobs if they complained. This comes down to a toxic work culture which Massey Energy failed to address.
Other breaches of the 1977 Mine act including a failure to comply with the training plan. The plan indicated that miners were to be subject to annual refresher courses and task training. The MSHA final report indicates that 21 of the miners did not receive their annual refresher training between April 5th, 2008 and April 5th, 2010. These deficiencies were flagged by Massey Energy’s parent company in a 2009 audit but were not addressed. Between 2008 and 2009, UBB had 500 violations of which 50 were unwarrantable failures (Zendrian, A, 2010).
Despite all the latent failures in the system that led to the eventual disaster at UBB, human error also played a pivotal role. Investigations and reports indicated that there was an air of negligence from some members of staff at UBB. For example, the week of the accident, the on shift and weekly safety checks were not taken out. These checks were in place to determine whether the mine was fit for purpose before a shift started, the individual who was to undertake this duty was to check that there were no new hazards in the mine, to examine the air courses and to energise the gas detectors. There was a lack of professionalism in taking of air quality measurements too. On the day of the disaster, there was air quality measurements recorded that couldn’t have been taken because the detectors were de-energized, the most likely explanation is that these were false measurements (Page, N. et al, 2011, p. 158). Even the most basic of tests were not untaken at UBB. There were no documented respirable checks on both the dust and the methane from within the mine. All the detection equipment was there to be used but wasn’t on the day of the disaster.
This disaster was completely avoidable and should not have happened under any circumstances. Contributory factors could have been eliminated by following simple protocol and the legislation that is there for this exact reason. Massey Energy should have followed the mine, ventilation and roof control plans to the approved standard. This would have prevented the methane from accumulating and manifesting itself into the explosion.
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The management could have also enforced a series of health and safety procedures that must be followed with no exceptions. These should have included stringent rules on keeping the detectors energised and keeping the coal dust inert with the use of rock dust. All pre shift examinations and weekly checks must also be taken out with no exceptions. This means that all air quality checks, methane checks, coal dust checks and equipment checks must be taken out and enforced. This would lead to a safer working environment and reduce risk.
There should have also been an emphasis on both miners and managements being trained into how to recognize hazards and how to report them efficiently and correctly. The MSHA has a freephone program in the US where workers can call in unsafe working conditions and have an MSHA inspector come out to the mine. This should be encouraged as it would help to keep the mine fit for purpose and in a safe working order.
There could also be an opportunity to add danger signs to raise awareness of potential hazards within the mine. In areas that specifically accumulate a lot of methane (in the case of UBB, behind the shields) there could be signs to indicate that this is a high-risk area for methane accumulation which may prompt workers to be inclined to report any faults that could result in methane ignition and coal dust explosions.
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