UK Coal Mining Ltd (formerly the UK’s largest coal producer, and now in administration) was prosecuted (22nd Oct) in two cases of major safety failings at its Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire.
In the first case (safety failings leading to a gas explosion underground at the Kellingley 501 District) – an explosive mixture of flammable gases had accumulated close to the area where miners were working because a safety curtain, designed to keep gases safely behind the coal face, was inadequately maintained. The Mines Inspectorate of Britain’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the curtain was damaged with one section cut and another removed, rendering it ineffective and allowing the explosive methane mixture to gradually move closer to the working area and to potential ignition sources. It was likely ignited initially by sandstone falling on to sandstone. Some 218 miners were safely evacuated. Dozens of further minor explosions took place just behind the coal face as accumulated gas ignited – probably from a residual hanging flame – and then burnt off. It was nearly three weeks before production was able to resume.
In the second case (safety failings leading to a fatality) – a miner was killed when some 15 tonnes of rock forming a section of roof collapsed as a powered roof support was being operated. His death happened just six days after a similar roof fall in the same vicinity of the mine with the same powered roof support in operation. HSE’s investigation identified that UK Coal managers were fully aware of the earlier roof fall, which fortunately hadn’t resulted in any injuries. However, despite the clear dangers posed to workers, no investigation into the failure of the roof support was carried out and insufficient precautions were taken to prevent it happening again. HSE also found the company had not improved the system of monitoring the roof supports to ensure warning signs of ground movement would be picked up quickly. The miner was trapped near to the centre of the roof fall and died from asphyxiation. A second miner was released after being trapped toward the edge of the collapse and allowed home after hospital treatment.
HSE told the court that it was unacceptable for UK Coal to have allowed miners to continue to work in that part of the mine following the earlier roof fall without:
– having carried out an in-depth investigation into the cause
– putting measures in place to prevent a recurrence
– workers being fully aware of the potential dangers, and
– establishing suitable procedures to ensure no one was in the area when the roof support was in operation.
Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 states: “It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.”
Fines were against Juniper (No3) Limited, c/o the administrators at Bridgewater Place, Leeds (£50,000 and £200,000 respectively), after a guilty plea (in both cases) to breaches of Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was agreed that although prosecution costs were properly incurred they would not be awarded so as not to jeopardise any potential payments to the Miners’ Pensioners’ coal allowance scheme, a main creditor against UK Coal’s limited financial assets.
There have been 15 fatalities in mines in Great Britain since 2006, including four deaths at Gleision in South Wales in September 2011, as well this fatality at the Kellingley pit.