The first story about the death of Mr. Ricky “Mud Puddle” Collins came on Thursday afternoon (3/27) in an AP story Massey Miner Killed in Logan County. The short news clip mentioned a miner employed at Massey Energy’s Freeze Fork Surface Mine in Logan County, who we later learned was Mr. Collins, 43, of Dan’s Branch, WV. The article said he:

“died while working on a trailer at a railroad crossing near Stollings in Logan County Thursday,”  but

“MSHA is not investigating the accident because it did not occur on mine property.”

An article the next day said the trailer “saddle-bagged” over the railroad tracks, and while Mr. Collins was attempting to dislodge it, a piece of metal struck and killed him. What I’ve learned about this incident is that Mr. Collins requested assistance by telephone or radio from someone (a supervisor?) back at the mine, and soon a couple of other workers were sent to the railroad tracks to assist him.

As a result, this railroad crossing became the impromptu workplace for these men.  Ricky “Mud Puddle” Collins was a miner, doing an assigned task. He was transporting some kind of equipment that belonged to the mine operator.  When he ran into trouble on the railroad tracks, employees from his worksite were sent to assist him. Then, he was killed in the course of doing his job.  MSHA’s senior officials have decided, however, that because it did not occur on mine property, it is not mining-related.  That’s wrong. 

It’s wrong from a worker safety and health perspective, and it’s also an egregiously narrow reading of MSHA’s own Part 50 regulations and Accident/Illness Investigation Procedures.  There are several categories of accidents defined in this procedure manual which require an investigation, including:

“an event at a mine which causes death or bodily injury to an individual not at the mine at the time the event occurs.”

In this case, the event at the mine was the decision that this equipment had to be transported elsewhere, and Mr. Collins was given this task. 

Last year, MSHA released a decision-tree document that was supposed to clarify when fatal injuries would “count” as mining-related.  The first two questions guiding a decision

“Did the incident resulting in death occur on mine property?” OR “Result from activity on mine property?”

I cautioned at the time that these criteria put MSHA on a reductionist path of only investigating the narrowest definition of mining fatalities.  It turns the agency’s back againsts its Mine Act roots, which are based in prevention.  Moreover, it aligns MSHA too closely with the mining industry and its economic and social goals of attributing as few fatalities as possible to mining-related work.

If one were to take a more forgiving attitude, she could suggest that MSHA doesn’t have jurisdiction (American Heritage: “authority or control”) to investigate fatalities that occur off of mine property.  Maybe MSHA’s senior officials or the attorneys from the Solicitor’s Office believe they would be on shaky legal ground investigating the death of this Massey Energy employee.  Is it fear of a lawsuit from Massey Energy that is deterring MSHA from investigating this death?

Whatever the reason, perhaps it is time for Congress to eliminate any uncertainty in MSHA’s authority for investigating a mining-related death.  Congress could direct the agency to:

investigate and prepare a written report on all fatal injuries and illnesses that may have resulted from work at a mine, regardless of the current employment status of the individual (i.e., currently employed, retired, or otherwise off work.)

Counting deceased miners fatally injuried from methane blasts and roof falls may have been all that was expected back in the 1970’s, but I expect more from MSHA today.  It’s time to apply some “continuous quality improvement” principles to our worker safety and health agencies, which are now pushing 40 years old (Coal Act 1969; OSHA Act 1970; Mine Act 1978).

In the obituary in the Williamson Daily News for Mr. Ricky “Mud Puddle” Collins, it notes that he is survived by his father, his wife, Tammy Savage Collins, two sons and a daughter, a brother and sister, his father and mother in-law, “who were like his parents.” 

Even if MSHA doesn’t say so, I believe Mr. Collins’ death was mining work-related.


Celeste Monforton, MPH is with the Dept of Environmental & Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She worked at MSHA from 1995-2001.