On June 9, 2021, Supervisor, Dake Ketola, of Columbus, Montana, and Foreman, Jerry Ashlock, of Caldwell, Idaho were riding in a side-by-side utility vehicle in the course and scope of employment for Stillwater Mining Company when they crashed into a 20-ton locomotive. Both men were pronounced dead when rescue crews arrived.
Stillwater Mining Company issued the following statement following the accident:
“It is with deep sadness that we report the loss of 2 of our fellow colleagues in a vehicle-related accident while working underground at the Stillwater Mine. An investigation is underway, and we are working closely with our safety regulators to determine the cause of the accident. At Sibanye-Stillwater, we value safety above all else. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone impacted by this tragic event.”
The accident is also being investigated by the Federal Mine Safety Health Administration.
Montanans, unfortunately, are no strangers to mining disasters, and have seen some of the worse mining disaster in the U.S.
The tragic death of these miners serves as a reminder that despite tremendous improvements in safety, mining remains one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. Miners and their loved ones need to be prepared in the event of a tragic accident.
How common are mining accidents?
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), there are 12,968 active mines in the U.S., employing more than 500,000 people.
Mining is particularly dangerous given its location and the equipment needed to perform the job. Miners are often required to perform heavy-duty physical tasks in cramped confined spaces, oftentimes thousands of feet beneath the surface. Miners are also exposed to unseen dangers, such as carbon monoxide or other harmful gases. These gases are often difficult to detect, which is why miners used to bring canaries in the mines—if the canary died, the miners knew they had to get out.
The most common causes of mining injuries include:
- Cave-ins. Cave-ins happen when supporting pillars fail. Falling rocks can block tunnels, disable workers, and cause toxic or explosive gases to be released into the air.
- Crashes. Crashes can happen as vehicles carrying workers and supplies attempt to navigate the small spaces within a mine.
- Electrocution. A worn cable or damaged plug being used in a damp workspace could produce a spark that electrocutes a worker.
- Explosions. Methane gas is often a byproduct of mining. If the mine lacks proper ventilation, a spark can ignite fumes or dust.
- Exposure. Miners are regularly exposed to harmful contaminants, such as silica dust and other mineral dust. This puts miners at a greater risk of developing respiratory illnesses (for example, “black lung”).
- Flooding. Heavy rain can cause a mine shaft to flood rapidly. If the water isn't contained quickly, the walls, ceiling, and floors could be compromised.
- Slip and falls. Slip and fall hazards are present in mines, just like in any workplace. To make matters worse, it’s not always easy or possible to quickly transport a critically injured miner to the hospital.
|Mining fatalities and serious injuries in the U.S.|
How can miners and their families recover after a mining accident?
Workers’ compensation is a form of insurance coverage that provides wage-loss and medical benefits to workers injured in the course and scope of employment regardless of fault. It also provides for beneficiary benefits to the surviving spouse and/or dependent children for accidents resulting in death.
In Montana, all employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance coverage on their employees, including miners. In exchange, a workers’ exclusive remedy when injured on the job is to file a workers’ compensation claim.
Exclusivity does not apply to an injury that was caused by the negligence of a third-party. Given the circumstances, a worker could potentially have a third-party personal injury claim and workers’ compensation claim, however, it is often difficult to determine whether a third-party was involved, especially in large mining operations.
Finally, Montana has very short deadlines to file a workers’ compensation claim or it will be permanently time barred. Therefore, it is very important to contact a workers’ compensation attorney if you or your loved one sustains a serious mining accident. An attorney can walk you through the steps, ensure that all filing deadlines are met, and make sure that all avenues of recovery are explored.