Mine accident investigations: Why legal counsel is so important

Safety is a top priority for mining operators, and with good reason: Mining is among the top ten most dangerous occupations according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with more than 25 fatalities per 100,000 workers.

Managing hazards and ensuring safety compliance can go a long way toward reducing the risks inherent in the mining industry. However, there is no surefire way to prevent accidents 100 percent of the time. Even the most diligent of mining operators may find themselves facing the nightmare of a serious or fatal accident.

A critical timeframe

The immediate aftermath of an accident is a critical timeframe for mining operators and employees alike. Both the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Kentucky Division of Mining Safety must be notified within 15 minutes after an accident or injury. Mine safety specialists will be immediately dispatched to assist with rescue and recovery operations, ensure the safety of other mining personnel, and secure the scene for investigation. It's important that mining personnel avoid tampering with the accident scene any more than necessary for safety and rescue purposes.

The ensuing accident investigation might involve:

  • Interviewing witnesses, employees and management
  • Requiring those involved to undergo drug testing within eight hours after the accident
  • Taking photos, measurements and samples at the scene
  • Conducting an on-site analysis of machinery, equipment, wiring and other elements that might have contributed to the accident
  • Examining relevant documentation, including training records, maintenance logs, schematics, previous accident reports, safety policies and procedures, compliance records, maps, rescue logs and medical records pertaining to the accident
  • Holding a public hearing to elicit witness testimony

The results of the investigation may lead to citations or other enforcement measures.

Why legal counsel is so important for mining operators

Although the goal of an MSHA investigation is to ferret out the root cause of the accident - thereby preventing similar accidents from recurring - poorly managed investigations can quickly turn into witch hunts. Legal counsel can help ensure a fair and balanced investigation. For example, the manner in which witness interviews are conducted (as well as how much time has passed since the accident) can drastically shape the information gleaned from the interviews.

With the potential for loss of licensure, civil penalties or even criminal proceedings, much is at stake in these investigations. An experienced legal team can monitor the investigation, make sure the right procedures are followed, and help foster constructive interactions between mining operators and investigating authorities.

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