Chris Melton, a production supervisor at a sand mine in Jefferson, S.C., made a fatal mistake last summer: He used a torch to heat a part on a broken pump.
Moments later, the pump exploded, sending shards of metal into the 41-year-old’s leg. He bled to death within minutes, according to an investigation by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Melton’s death about 50 miles southeast of Charlotte illustrates a trend that has alarmed federal regulators: a rise in fatal accidents in quarries and other non-coal mines that produce stone, sand, gravel and other minerals. Last year, 28 miners in this segment died, the most since 2007 when there were 33, leading officials to step up education and enforcement efforts.
This month, MSHA levied the highest possible civil fines for four citations against the operator of the mine, Hanson Aggregates, and a contractor involved in the accident. The $310,000 in total fines in the case ranks as the sixth highest total MSHA has proposed after a fatality at a quarry or non-coal mine since 2010. Many don’t top $50,000, data show.
The companies are contesting the citations and the fines.
According to an Observer analysis, 418 workers died nationwide in quarries and other non-coal mines since 2000, nearly as many as the 446 who perished in coal mines. Of the quarry and non-coal deaths, nine occurred in North Carolina and eight in South Carolina. Nevada had the most, with 36.
“The general public can understand that coal mines are dangerous,” says Celeste Monforton, a lecturer at George Washington University and a former federal mine safety official. “But in these other places there are some really horrific hazards.”
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.
A study by federal officials of recent quarry deaths found that supervisors, such as Melton, were among the most likely victims. As mines cut back on employees, supervisors may be picking up more tasks, said William Gerringer, who heads the North Carolina mine and quarry bureau, which provides training to miners and investigates fatalities.
“A lot of time,” Gerringer said, “supervisors get to doing stuff that normally they wouldn’t be doing.”
Melton’s brother, Casey Melton, said he suspects expense cuts at the Jefferson mine contributed to the fatal accident. The quarry had reduced maintenance staff, and supervisors such as Melton were handling more tasks, he said. The mine employed 15 people in 2014, less than half its staff in 2008, according to MSHA data.
“They were working with a skeleton crew,” said Casey, who used to work in the mine but has been on disability since 2013 with a bulging disk in his back and a pinched nerve in his neck.
Melton’s widow, Shannon, did not return calls seeking comment. Melton’s father and another brother, both of whom work at the mine, declined to comment.
Jeff Sieg, a spokesman for Hanson, declined to comment on specifics of the accident or on the citations and fines. Hanson, which also has operations in North Carolina, was acquired in 2007 by HeidelbergCement, a German-based company that had revenue of about $13.6 billion in 2014.
Hanson is “committed to workplace safety, and we strive for zero accidents, injuries and occupational illnesses,” Sieg said. “We take any accident or safety-related incident very seriously. We continue to keep Chris Melton and his family in our thoughts and prayers.”
Asked whether cost-cutting contributed to the accident, Sieg said the company believes a safe work environment “actually contributes to keeping expenses down.” That’s because fewer accidents result in reduced administrative costs and worker compensation claims, he said.
Deaths start to rise
Mining may not be a highly visible business in the Carolinas, but it plays a big role in the economy. 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.
The business suffered during the recession, with production falling by half, but it has seen some improvement recently, especially in metro areas, said Jay Stem, executive director of the North Carolina Aggregates Association, a trade group.
“You’re seeing the major increases in the Charlotte, Triad and Raleigh markets,” Stem said. “A lot of the guys in the rural areas, they are staying busy, but they aren’t seeing the uptick that the rest of the state is seeing.”
To be sure, overall mining deaths have fallen sharply in the past four decades. In 1978, the first year of operation for MSHA, 242 miners – coal and non-coal – died in mining accidents. In 2014, there were 44 fatalities.
Deaths in quarries and mineral mines fell to as low as 16 in 2011 and 2012 but started rising in late 2013. That increase came even as fatalities in coal mining were falling, reaching a new annual low of 16 in 2014. MSHA credits new safety programs as well as a decrease in the number of coal mines for the improvement in that area.
Quarry deaths result from a wide range of causes, from falls to explosions, according to an MSHA study of 37 deaths since October 2013. Among mining occupations, nine supervisors died, trailing only miners/laborers with 11 fatalities, the study showed.
“It’s perplexing because there isn’t a clear pattern of something that we’re seeing going wrong,” said Mary Poulton, director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources at the University of Arizona. “I think it comes down to individual workers constantly being focused, and it comes down to companies being continually focused on safety and teaching workers, including supervisors, hazard recognition.”
In late 2013, MSHA began stepping up enforcement, examining the causes of deaths, creating new online tools and holding summits with miners and operators, Joseph Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said in an interview. Training is particularly important for supervisors, who are finding themselves helping perform mining tasks rather than just overseeing them, Main said.
So far in 2015, six miners have died in quarries, compared with four in coal mines.
“There is a lot of intensity out there to turn the trend around,” Main said. “We’re enlisting everybody’s help. We’re using both the bully pulpit and the pen and pencil when it comes to enforcement to get us there.”
Bailey Wood, a spokesman for the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, said companies, workers and MSHA share responsibility for mine safety, noting that the industry has seen injury rates fall over the past 14 years.
“We as an industry,” Wood said, “want to do everything in our power to make sure our workers get home to their families at the end of the shift.”
Explosion, then a call for help
Signs of sand mining are everywhere in Jefferson, just south of Pageland, with sandy soil sweeping across roads and driveways in this rural area.
Chris Melton came to work 19 years ago at the Brewer mine – which still carries the name of a previous owner – eventually rising to production supervisor.
When he wasn’t working, Melton, who lived in nearby Ruby, raced cars he fixed up at a local track. He had recently bought a new car and was working on it with his brother Jason.
“He loved going fast, whether on a motorcycle, go-kart or race car,” said Casey Melton. “It was like he was an adrenaline junkie.”
Chris Melton and his wife had a daughter who he would take to cheerleading competitions, said Betty Melton, Casey’s wife.
The Brewer mine covers hundreds of acres in rural Chesterfield County. At the mine, sand is excavated and then hauled by truck to an on-site plant where it is screened, washed and placed into piles. The sand is sold for use in construction.
Here’s what happened on June 18, the day of the accident, according to MSHA’s report and investigator notes obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request:
Melton arrived at the mine at 5 a.m., held a safety meeting and then discussed work duties for the five miners. Plant manager Mike Cool was the person in charge of safety and health at the mine, but he wasn’t on-site. An Observer call to Cool was referred to the Hanson spokesman.
Around 11 a.m., Melton noticed a pump that moved wastewater wasn’t working, and he asked two contractors from Pageland Machine & Tool to fix it. They were already on-site repairing a conveyor belt pulley.
To fix the pump, they needed to remove the hub on the pump’s impeller, which was a little more than 2 feet in diameter. After a pry bar and a pipe wrench wouldn’t do the job, they decided to use the torch.
It wasn’t the first time that workers had used heat to repair the pump. During the accident investigation, the contractors told MSHA “they had done this type of process previously,” said Neal Merrifield, the MSHA administrator for the quarry and non-coal section.
Melton came over to help, taking over the torch. Minutes later, the impeller hub exploded.
A metal fragment tore a 6-inch wound into Melton’s upper right leg. He told one of the contractors to go get help, then lowered himself to the ground. No one else was hurt.
One of the contractors ran 50 yards to tell another employee to call for help. After the employee didn’t get an answer from a plant office on his CB radio, he then used his cellphone to call 911.
The contractors returned to Melton and stayed with him until EMS arrived – about 23 minutes after the accident. The Chesterfield County coroner declared him dead at the scene.
Company challenges fines
In August, MSHA handed down a series of bluntly worded citations against Hanson. They were served to Cool, the plant manager, documents indicate.
“Management engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence by disregarding the manufacturer’s warnings not to apply heat to the impeller hub,” one citation stated. Another cited Hanson for not providing proper training for repairing the pump. Melton had not been trained on the task, an MSHA report stated.
This month, MSHA proposed fines of $70,000 – the maximum possible amount – for each of those two violations, which Hanson is challenging. MSHA also cited the company that employed the two contractors, Pageland Machine & Tool, for the same two violations and proposed the same fines.
Pageland owner Richard Arant declined to comment. In documents contesting the citations, Pageland says it was never told about the manufacturer’s warning and that its contractors were working under Melton’s supervision.
MSHA also brought citations against Hanson for the medical assistance provided to Melton after he was injured.
“Arrangements were not made to provide medical assistance and perform patient assessment and control bleeding of the victim,” one of the citations states. “This failure to act in a timely manner and to follow their training plan on emergency medical procedures ultimately resulted in the death of the miner.”
Because of the long distance for EMS vehicles to arrive on the property, “adequate arrangements” were not made in advance for medical assistance for injured miners, another citation found.
FirstHealth of the Carolinas, a hospital system that responded to the accident, told the Observer the EMS crew sent to the scene “received conflicting information about the actual location of the patient, which resulted in confusion and delay in arriving on the scene.” There was also difficulty getting the EMS vehicle around conveyors at the scene, spokeswoman Gretchen Kelly said.
“The initial call to EMS did not indicate potential site access issues,” Kelly said. “Access to the victim was addressed once the responders presented on the scene.”
Hanson is contesting two citations related to medical assistance and one for not informing the contractors of the hazards they could face working on the pump. Those citations carried about $30,000 in fines.
“First Aid was attempted and emergency response personnel were contacted, all with an objective of providing help as fast as possible,” Hanson said in a memo sent to employees in September.
The Observer called three workers who were at the accident, and they either declined to comment or did not return calls.
Tony Oppegard, an attorney in Kentucky who represents miners, called the citations in the case “very serious.”
“No. 1, you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing, and No. 2, whoever is doing it wasn’t trained to do it the proper way,” Oppegard said. “And then, No. 3, once it caused an injury they don’t provide proper medical treatment to an injured miner resulting in his death.”
Grief and anger
Mourners spilled out onto the lawn of the funeral home for Melton’s visitation, said Betty Melton, his sister-in-law. In the casket, Chris Melton was wearing sunglasses and a favorite ball cap with the logo from the TV show “Sons of Anarchy.”
“You never saw him without his sunglasses,” said Casey Melton, his brother.
Last fall, the company held a memorial service for Melton at a nearby Hanson quarry and installed a plaque in a granite rock. Workers received medallions emblazoned with Melton’s face and his mantra: “You worry too damn much.”
The South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission ordered Hanson and its insurance company to pay Chris Melton’s widow and daughter about $171,000 each, records show. But Casey Melton said it angers him that the company is contesting the citations and fines levied after the accident that killed his brother.
“If I own a business and you work for me or your son works for me and he got killed on the job and it was my fault, whatever they charged me I would pay,” he said. “There isn’t enough money to take the place of a life.”
Rothacker: 704-358-5170; Twitter: @rickrothacker
North Carolina has 198 active mines – up about 28percent since 2000. Since then, 418 workers at quarries and non-coal mines have died nationally; 17 were in the Carolinas.
LAST N.C. MINE FATALITY CAME IN 2012
James McNeill, 49, was the last miner to die on the job in North Carolina.
McNeill was nowhere near the mines or shifting earth when he suffered a fatal head trauma in April 2012, according to accident reports.
McNeill and his co-workers had finished mining for the day when McNeill helped his boss dismantle an excavator in G.S. Materials Inc.’s warehouse near Sanford. A counterweight gave way, and McNeill fell backward, striking his head on the concrete, according to a report by North Carolina investigators.
McNeill’s wife, Greta McNeill, says her husband’s death is hard to swallow, even three years later. He was meticulous about safety, she said, even watching training videos at home on his days off.
“I never worried because he knew what he was doing,” Greta McNeill said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the company for a failure to provide proper training and to comply with mandatory standards, according to a report on the accident. Those citations resulted in fines totaling $122,500, records show.
Rick Rothacker and Mandy Locke of The (Raleigh) News & Observer
MARTIN MARIETTA HAS 50 MINES IN THE CAROLINAS
The mine operators with the most quarry and non-coal deaths since 2000 are Raleigh-based Martin Marietta Materials and a Canadian company called Barrick Gold, with 10 each, according to an Observer analysis.
Martin Marietta is the nation’s largest producer of aggregates, which encompass stone, sand and gravel. It has around 185 mines nationwide, including about 50 in the Carolinas, according to an Observer analysis of Mine Safety and Health Administration data.
The Fortune 1000 company, which has about 7,200 employees, went public in 1994 and completed its spinoff from defense giant Lockheed Martin in 1996.
Two of the fatalities at Martin Marietta mines since 2000 occurred in North Carolina. The most recent one, in Monroe, took place in 2007.
The company paid $1,995 in fines after that death, according to the citation listed in the investigation report. It paid $247 after a death in 2003 at a Salisbury facility, reports show.
Michael Hunt, Martin Marietta’s vice president of safety and health, said the company makes safety a core part of its corporate culture.
“The way we look at fatalities, one is too many,” Hunt said. “There should never be any. We put a tremendous effort into training, communication. ... From our CEO down, we talk safety every chance we get – from the first meeting in the quarry to the boardroom.”
Barrick spokesman Andy Lloyd said the company’s safety performance is “generally among the strongest in the industry,” noting that 2014 was the best safety year for the company in its more than 30-year history. It has seven gold mines in Nevada and Montana, according to its website.