Quarry deaths decline, but regulator remains wary

Death near Charlotte highlights danger in quarries

Quarries provide the raw materials for buildings and roads in the Carolinas. But they are also dangerous. Chris Melton, a supervisor at a quarry near Pageland, S.C., died in June 2014 when a pump he was working on exploded.
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Quarries provide the raw materials for buildings and roads in the Carolinas. But they are also dangerous. Chris Melton, a supervisor at a quarry near Pageland, S.C., died in June 2014 when a pump he was working on exploded.

Mining fatalities have fallen slightly in the most recent fiscal year, but one day this summer was a stark reminder of how dangerous the job can be.

On Aug. 3, three miners in three states died in accidents. They worked in mines that produce sand, gravel, granite and gold ore – the types of non-coal mines that have seen an uptick in fatalities in recent years.

“It was a wake-up call for everybody,” Joe Main, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, said in an interview during a recent Charlotte visit. “There is more work to do. We really need to get everybody on board to get it fixed.”

In April, the Observer chronicled a recent rise in deaths at quarries and other non-coal mines that produce everything from sand to gravel to potash. Last year, the industry posted the most fatalities since 2007, including the June 2014 death of a supervisor at a quarry near Pageland, S.C. Chris Melton, 41, bled to death within minutes when a pump he was working on exploded.

Quarries are a driving force behind development in the Carolinas, providing the raw materials for new buildings and roads. North Carolina has 198 active mines – up about 28 percent since 2000 and the fourth most of any state. South Carolina has 82 quarries and non-coal mines, up 26 percent from 2000, data show. Neither state has any coal mines.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, the industry’s federal regulator, reported this week that there were 23 fatalities nationwide in quarries and other non-coal mines in the year ended Sept. 30, down from 29 in the previous fiscal year. Partly because of mine closures, coal mines saw the fewest fatalities in a fiscal year ever – 14, down from 18 in the previous year.

In an effort to reduce fatalities, MSHA has been stepping up enforcement, increasing training for inspectors and educating the industry on potential hazards. To boost staff, Main said he has moved about 15 to 25 coal inspectors over to the division that oversees quarries. That adds to about 315 inspectors already in that division.

Main regularly travels the country, speaking about safety during meetings with company officials, labor unions and trade groups. Last week, he spoke at an annual stakeholders meeting held in Charlotte that drew industry representatives from around the Southeast.

“We have seen a lot of cooperation,” Main said. “I have to give the industry credit. They have been getting the message out. They are working with us.”

Mining is quietly a big business in the Carolinas. Not counting contractors, the industry employs nearly 5,000 workers in the two states, according to MSHA, and produces millions of tons of materials for construction and other industries each year.

Jay Stem, executive director of the North Carolina Aggregates Association, said MSHA officials are making an effort to point out potential problems when they make inspection visits, not just hand out violations. In addition to reporting fatalities, companies have also been encouraged to report “near-misses” as a way to educate the industry about hazards to avoid before they lead to accidents.

“Their focus nationwide is communication,” said Stem, whose group sponsored last week’s meeting in Charlotte. “If we can communicate and get away from that adversarial relationship that will really improve safety.”

The trend in quarry deaths had been improving until the Aug. 3 fatalities in North Dakota, Nevada and Virginia. There haven’t been any more deaths in these types of mines since then, but Main remains wary. October is the deadliest month of the year for quarries and non-coal mines, with 51 fatalities since 2000.

One reason for this spike, Main said, is that October is the time of year when quarries, especially in northern states, are packing up equipment for the winter. That means employees are handling tasks that aren’t part of their daily routine.

Main, who was appointed in 2009 by President Barack Obama, will leave office after next year’s election. In the meantime, he said safety will remain a priority.

“We need to keep driving things in the right direction,” he said.

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker