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Metal and Nonmetal Mine Safety and Health


Surface Nonmetal Mine
(Sand and Gravel)

Fatal Fall of Highwall Accident
October 14, 2002

Powley Gravel Pit
Powley Sand and Gravel, A Division of Seneca Petroleum Co., Inc.
East Peoria, Woodford County, Illinois
Mine I.D. No. 11-01848


William G. Dethloff III
Mine Safety and Health Inspector

Stephen W. Field
Mine Safety and Health Inspector

Gharib Ibrahim
Civil Engineer

Laman J. Lankford
Mine Safety and Health Specialist

Originating Office
Mine Safety and Health Administration
North Central District
515 West First Street, Room 333
Duluth, MN 55802-1302
Felix A. Quintana, District Manager


On October 14, 2002, Ronald G. Briner II, front-end loader operator, age 25, was fatally injured when the highwall sloughed and buried him between the loader and the highwall. The accident occurred because the loose material of the highwall was not taken down or allowed to slough prior to entering the area.

Briner had a total of 16 weeks mining experience, all at this mine. He had received 4 hours new miner training, along with 2 days of task training.


Powley Gravel Pit, a sand and gravel operation, owned and operated by Powley Sand and Gravel, a Division of Seneca Petroleum Company, Inc., was located in East Peoria, Woodford County, Illinois. The principal operating official was James E. Sellhorn, vice-president, Construction Division and Sand/Gravel Division. The mine was normally operated two 8-hour shifts, five days a week. Total employment was 20 persons.

Sand and gravel was mined from a single bench pit. The material was dug with front-end loaders and either loaded into haul trucks or carried by the front-end loaders to the plant feed hoppers. The material was then processed, stockpiled, and sold for construction aggregate.

The last regular inspection at this operation was completed May 16, 2002. Another inspection was conducted following this investigation.


On the day of the accident, Ronald G. Briner II (victim) reported to work at 2 p.m., his normal starting time. Also assigned to the second shift were Brian M. Male, wash plant operator/plant maintenance man, and Virgil E. Whetstone, loader operator. Briner had been assigned to operate the Komatsu front-end loader to feed the No. 2 wash plant with material from the southeast section of the pit. The work activities that day went along normally until 9 p.m., at which time Briner received a call on his cell phone from a friend. Briner parked his loader at the base of the southeast pit highwall, got out of the cab, and continued his phone conversation. He told his friend he thought he saw a piece of coal and he may have attempted to remove it from the pit by climbing on the bucket. Loose material from the highwall sloughed and buried Briner and the front of the front-end loader.

Briner's friend heard Briner yell and then the cell phone went dead. The friend tried to contact Briner again by phone and received a no service message, and then called 911.

The local Sheriff's department responded to the call and, after arriving at the mine, asked Brian Male where Briner had been working. Male looked around and noticed that Briner's loader was at the highwall and not moving. They drove over to the loader and, after verifying Briner was not in the operator's cab, Male called out to Briner and received no response. Male then attempted to back the front-end loader away from the highwall, but it would not move due to the material covering the bucket and front wheels.

The Sheriff's department contacted the Spring Bay Fire and Rescue squad to assist with recovery. Meanwhile, Whetstone was called by radio to bring the Cat 992C loader over and pull the Komatsu away from the highwall. The Spring Bay Fire and Rescue squad arrived and assisted with recovery. After a couple of attempts, the Komatsu was pulled away from the highwall and Briner was found buried between the loader bucket and the left front tire with his feet higher than his head. The rescue squad attempted to revive Briner, but was unsuccessful.

The coroner pronounced Briner dead at the site at 11:05 p.m. Death was attributed to positional asphyxia.


MSHA was notified of the accident at about 11:15 p.m. on October 14, 2002, by a telephone call from Charles H. Schertz, Powley Sand and Gravel plant manager, to Steven M. Richetta, acting district manager.

An investigation was started the next day. An order was issued under the provisions of Section 103(k) of the Act to ensure the safety of the miners.

MSHA's accident investigators traveled to the mine, made a physical inspection of the accident scene, interviewed employees, and reviewed conditions and work procedures relevant to the accident. MSHA conducted the investigation with the assistance of mine management and employees.


  • The accident occurred at the base of the highwall of the southeast section of the pit.

  • The normal mining practice was to start loading the sloughed material at one end of the highwall and work to the other end of the highwall.

  • The southeast section of the pit was approximately 250 feet long and about 30 feet high. The portion of the highwall that sloughed during the accident was about 48 feet wide and contained about 25 cubic yards of material. After the highwall fell, the remaining top 10 to 15 feet was nearly vertical. Sand that had sloughed off had accumulated at the base of the highwall for a height of approximately 16 feet.

  • The material that made up this portion of the highwall was a natural sand material; occasionally pieces of coal were mixed in with the sand. Coal was considered a contaminant and was removed by hand, or by the plant process. The top 2 feet of the highwall was a mixture of sand and clay.

  • The marks on the ground from the loader tires indicated that the loader had been moved approximately 23 feet away from the southeast highwall during recovery activities.

  • The victim was operating a Komatsu WA 500 IL rubber-tired front-end loader equipped with a 5.9 cubic yard bucket. The Komatsu loader was inspected and no defects were found.

  • Briner was hired as a front-end loader operator and was a member of International Union of Operating Engineers, Local No. 649.

  • The accident occurred around 9:00 p.m.; a subsequent illumination test was conducted using the Komatsu loader's lights to determine their effectiveness in darkness. The illumination was adequate to light up the highwall for safe operation.

  • The weather conditions at the time of the accident were clear.
    A root cause analysis was conducted. The following causal factors were identified:
    1. Causal Factor - The highwall was unstable, creating a hazard to anyone outside the cab of the loader, near the toe. The established practice of only removing material after the highwall had sloughed was not followed.

      Corrective Action - Mining practices and procedures should be reviewed to ensure that the extraction process does not result in unstable highwalls. Whenever the highwall profile approaches instability, digging should be moved to another location until the highwall sloughs.

    2. Causal Factor - The victim parked the loader near the highwall, exited the cab, and went near the toe of the highwall.

      Corrective Action - A policy should be established that prevents persons from entering areas near the toe of the highwall while outside the cab of the front-end loaders. This policy should be strictly adhered to, even if the highwall is stable. Strict adherence to this policy would eliminate the possibility of injury in the event the highwall becomes unstable and sloughs.

    The cause of the accident was the failure to allow the highwall to slough prior to entering the area to load out material. The root cause of the accident was the failure to effectively establish hazard recognition and prohibit persons from exiting mobile equipment near the toe of the highwall.


    Order No. 6142543 was issued on October 15, 2002, under the provisions of Section 103(k) of the Mine Act:
    A fatal accident occurred at this operation on October 14, 2002, when a front-end loader operator was buried under material which sloughed off of the highwall. This order is issued to assure the safety of persons at this operation. It prohibits all activity in the affected area until MSHA has determined that it is safe to resume normal mining operations in the area. The mine operator shall obtain prior approval from an authorized representative for all actions to recover and/or restore operations to the affected area.
    This order was terminated on October 18, 2002. Conditions that contributed to the accident have been corrected and normal mining operations can resume.

    Citation No. 6158300 was issued on November 7, 2002, under the provisions of Section 104(a) of the Mine Act for violation of 56.3200:
    A fatal accident occurred at this operation on October 14, 2002, when a front-end loader operator was buried under material that had sloughed off of the highwall when loose material fell and buried him. Ground conditions that created a hazard were not corrected nor was the area barricaded to prohibit entry to work or travel in the area.
    This citation was terminated on November 25, 2002. Following the accident, no loose material remained on the highwall. On October 17, 2002, the mine operator reinstructed all miners in highwall safety. The mine operator has also established new safety procedures for working highwalls and all miners have been trained on it. Miners have also been instructed to always pull equipment back at least 100 feet from the face of the highwall prior to stopping or exiting the operator's cab.

    Related Fatal Alert Bulletin:
    Fatal Alert Bulletin Icon FAB02M31


    Persons Participating in the Investigation

    Powley Sand and Gravel, a Division of Seneca Petroleum Co., Inc.
    James E. Sellhorn ............. vice-president, construction division and sand/gravel division
    Vincent J. Piatak ............. health and safety manager
    Harding ESE Company
    H. John Head, P.E. ............. principal mining engineer
    Davis and Campbell L.L.C.
    David G. Lubben ............. attorney
    Mine Safety and Health Administration
    William G. Dethloff III ............. mine safety and health inspector
    Stephen W. Field ............. mine safety and health inspector
    Brian P.Goepfert ............. mine safety and health inspector
    Laman J. Lankford ............. mine safety and health specialist (training)
    Gharib Ibrahim ............. mining engineer


    Persons Interviewed

    Powley Sand & Gravel, a Division of Seneca Petroleum Co., Inc.
    James E. Sellhorn ............. vice-president, construction division and sand/gravel division
    Vincent J. Piatak ............. safety and health manager
    Stanley G Kruse ............. front-end loader operator
    Brian M. Male ............. plant maintenance/wash plant operator (2nd shift)
    Virgil E. Whetstone ............. front-end loader operator (2nd shift)
    Spring Bay Fire Department
    Dennis Perry ............. lead emt