Maintenance, safety, and the drive for production

Power Center

I just read an article about Daniel L. Couch Jr., a mine maintenance chief who pleaded guilty to falsifying safety documents. Before people go throwing him under the bus, it’s important to understand a few things about mine maintenance, safety, and the push for production.

Certified mine electricians don’t just repair electrical equipment and perform maintenance, they are also required to inspect electrical equipment to ensure operational safety, electrical safety, and permissibility (the ability to operate in a methane-air mixture without igniting said methane and causing an explosion). It involves everything from checking the brakes, safety canopies, motor compartments for flammables, fire suppression systems, dust control system, and all of the explosion proof enclosures, cable entrance glands, lights and so on using feeler gauges to ensure tolerances of anywhere from .002 to .005 inches on said enclosures. We also had to hand check upwards of 500 feet of the electrical cable feeding the machine, searching for cuts and punctures to the insulating jacket, sometimes in mud one foot deep. We called them permissibility checks, and they had to be performed weekly and recorded with our signature under 30 CFR Part 75.512.  If the equipment in question wasn’t inspected and signed off on, violations were issued to the company and fines were levied.

As you can imagine, a mine electrician has a lot of responsibility. Not only do you have the responsibility of making sure people aren’t killed operating large pieces of equipment powered by 3 phase voltages from 480 Volts up to 990 “ha-ha” Volts (ha-ha because it’s always over 1000V, but they say 990V to keep from having to comply with regulations for high voltage), but electricians are also the first line of defense in keeping the company out of trouble with the law—and the company doesn’t hold back from pointing fingers if someone does get hurt or they get fined for a violation.

The problem as I encountered it, came when the company didn’t hire enough electricians, or give them enough time to do all required maintenance and safety inspections. They stretch hours out and work people mandatory over time which reduces both their mental acuity and, for some, their work ethic. The mine where I worked, gave us only 6 hours to effect major repairs, perform maintenance, and inspect equipment between production shifts. If we had to advance the section or “belt up,” we were also tasked with shutting down the high voltage feed and moving the section power center (sub station) forward in the mining process. If I’m not mistaken, the manual for a Joy continuous mining machine states it should take more than 10 hours to perform the proper permissibility checks. Things get missed, and the electrician takes the fall.

So how or why the belt drive inspections weren’t performed at Paradise No. 9 is still a mystery to the public. Whatever it was, it led Couch to falsely sign the books saying the inspections had been done to avoid fines. Perhaps he thought he could get by with it, perhaps he was feeling pressured, or maybe he was just looking for an “attaboy.” Still, I can’t help but wonder if a lack of maintenance personnel was a factor.

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