WASHINGTON -- An Indiana coal miner was killed after being struck and pinned down by a shuttle car in an underground mine on Friday, making his the fourth mining-related death since the government shutdown began on Oct. 1.
The death of Larry Schwartz, first reported by the Charleston Gazette, comes at a time when the federal agency responsible for protecting miners has had to furlough more than half its staff and stop many of its inspections due to a lapse in funding.
Under its shutdown plan, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has dropped its routine, semi-annual inspections of surface and underground mines, while maintaining its so-called "targeted" inspections of sites it believes deserve extra scrutiny. The list of mines that have seen inspectors despite the shutdown includes the one at which Schwartz worked, Prosperity Mine, run by Five Star Mining Inc., in Petersburg, Ind. MSHA has performed two inspections at Prosperity since Oct. 2, according to the agency.
When asked about Schwartz's death, the woman who answered the phone at Five Star Mining said the company wouldn't comment and abruptly hung up.
According to a preliminary report issued by MSHA, Schwartz, 59, had chatted briefly with the driver of the shuttle car shortly before the accident. Schwartz then walked past the car and told the driver he was "in the clear," but the driver apparently wasn't taking the route Schwartz anticipated.
"The car driver did not turn down entry No. 7 as the victim thought but continued forward through the crosscut," the report reads. "The shuttle car pinned the victim between the car and the coal rib on the blind side of the shuttle car."
Mine Safety and Health News reported that MSHA cited the mine for health and safety infractions 625 times last year and 466 times this year. Last year the mine reported 20 injuries that resulted in employees losing work time, a rate 24 percent higher than the national average, according to the publication.
MSHA furloughed nearly 1,400 of its 2,355 employees once the shutdown began. The agency continues to investigate emergencies and fatal accidents like Schwartz's, and it's still carrying out a limited number of inspections for targeted mines. But with many of its inspectors off the job, the agency has scrapped its quarterly inspections of underground mines and biannual inspections of surface mines.
One week into the shutdown, three miners were killed in as many days -- a tragedy not seen in more than a decade. Shortly thereafter, Joseph A. Main, the head of MSHA, issued a statement urging mining companies to follow safety laws. "The fact that this occurred over the weekend, when there may be a greater expectation an MSHA inspector would not be present, is a red flag," Main said.
As the Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. noted, in addition to scaling back inspections, the shutdown has also prevented MSHA from working on a long-awaited rule that would force mining companies to put more proximity detection devices into their mines. Such devices are designed to help miners avoid being pinned or crushed by moving mining equipment, as was apparently the case in Schwartz's death.