Steamboat Springs The realization of the potential dangers of coal mining tumbled down on Bill Morgan, a coal miner at Twentymile Coal Co. for 11 years, as he was fire-bossing the area where Kyle Webb was recently injured. While doing a pre-shift inspection of the area, Morgan looked around and started thinking about all of the things in the Glory Hole area that possibly could hurt a person.
"After people get hurt, you start thinking about your own mortality and you become more safety-conscious," Morgan said.
In response to the June 6 accident that has left Webb in critical condition at Denver Health Medical Center, employees at Twentymile have taken a more cautious attitude toward their inherently dangerous jobs. The workers' awareness of the need for safety has increased and miners are analyzing the risks of their tasks before completing them, said Ron Spangler, the manager of human resources at Twentymile.
"(The miners) are vitally concerned about making this place better than it already was," Spangler said.
Accidents such as Webb's affect everybody, Morgan said, because miners are a close-knit group.
"You may know a few that you don't like or don't work well with, but you always look out for each other," Morgan said.
In Morgan's opinion, Twentymile always has been relatively safe: There never has been a fatality at the mine and Morgan describes Webb's accident as the worst in Twentymile history.
Twentymile has a lower accident rate than construction companies and the ski industry, Spangler said. The mine's ambulance typically is used once a year for a mine injury.
Reports show that Twentymile, with almost 400 employees, had three "lost-time" accidents in 1999. A lost-time accident occurs when an employee is unable to work his next shift after being injured.
"With as many people as we have, it's not an acceptable amount, but it's one that is headed in the right direction," said Link Derick, the technical safety manager.
To reduce the number of accidents, the safety department and others at the mine have instituted programs that emphasize the importance to miners of being aware of their surroundings. Monthly meetings also are held to discuss safety principles, and the safety department publishes a list of accidents that crews read over weekly.
"The best way to characterize our incident rate is that we are way ahead of the industry average and we are doing the right thing," Spangler said.
Twentymile had a 4.7 "incident rate" in 1999, which was the lowest in the industry, he said. The incident rate is the yearly percentage of employees who have been injuried, compared to the total number of employees.
Underground coal miners receive 40 hours of safety training before going underground, and attend a 10-hour refresher class every year. The initial 40- hour class covers 14 subjects that range from cardiopulmonary resuscitation to fire-escape procedures.
Morgan said today's workers emphasize safe working habits over seeing how much work they can get done in a shift.
"We have adverse conditions and a person has to be cautious of their environment at all times," Derick said.
Twentymile has used technology to engineer out the most typical hazards of underground coal mining, Derick said. They use mesh roof supports to prevent roof falls and focus on advances in electrical safety. The miners are in a confined environment, though, so they have to be well-trained and professional to stay safe, he said.
As for Webb, the recently injured miner, he has yet to regain conciousness since falling 30 to 40 feet from a ladder inside the mine and being hit in the head with falling rocks.
He sustained numerous internal injuries, but doctors are most concerned about the serious head injury that has kept him in a coma for the last week.
Friends and family members are with him in Denver, and report that he seems to be responding to touch. Doctors caution, however, that those responses may be reflexes rather than signs that he is regaining conciousness.