A worker drowned when he fell into a lake because his employer failed to ensure he wore PPE while working on a platform near the water, according to a federal investigation.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) found that the mine operator didn’t ensure that the worker wore appropriate PPE: a life jacket, in this case.
Initially donned life jacket, was seen without it minutes later
Elisha McMahon, a miner with 30 years of experience, was employed by Barry Industrial Sand in Orange County, Texas.
The mine operates a single dredge on Lake Tristan, a 75-acre private lake belonging to nearby Boom Town RV Park. The mine dredges sand and gravel from the lake and pumps the material to a screening plant. Barry had three employees working one eight-hour shift, five days per week.
On Sept. 9, 2022, at 7:30 a.m., McMahon started his shift and hauled a boat via pickup truck to a boat ramp on Lake Tristan. He would use the boat out to go out and check on the dredge.
Surveillance cameras showed McMahon arriving at the boat ramp at 8:14 a.m., backing the boat trailer into the lake, donning a life jacket and eventually traveling on the boat in the direction of the dredge. He was out of view of the cameras by 8:20 a.m. Ten minutes later, he could be seen arriving back at the boat ramp where he disembarked from the boat and traveled out of camera view. He was no longer wearing his life jacket at this time.
At 8:54 a.m., McMahon once again showed up on surveillance cameras going back toward the boat. He climbed onboard the boat and used it to travel back out to the dredge.
Workers from RV park investigate after losing sight of him
Two hours later, a maintenance worker at Boom Town RV Park saw the dredge leaning to one side in the water. He also saw McMahon hastily coming down the vessel’s control room stairs with fishing poles and other items, which he placed into the boat. The maintenance worker lost sight of McMahon and noticed that he could no longer hear the dredge’s motors running.
A short time later, the maintenance worker contacted a co-worker and the two men took two kayaks out to the dredge to check on McMahon. They checked the dredge, the boat and the water immediately surrounding the dredge but couldn’t find McMahon.
The two maintenance workers returned to Boom Town and reported what they found to an office manager. Two residents of the RV park were also present and one of them called the mine operator at 11:45 a.m. The mine operator called 9-1-1 at 1:58 p.m.
The local fire department arrived half an hour later and used its dive team and boat to search for McMahon. The dive team found his body about 10 feet from the rear of the dredge in 20 feet of water.
Failure to use appropriate PPE contributed to fatality
When MSHA investigators arrived they found the dredge had capsized because the mine operator had attempted to move it to shore. Investigators believed the dredge had been leaning in the water on the day of the incident because underwater material fell on the dredge’s lines during dredging activity.
On the day of the incident, fire department personnel found the motor on the boat McMahon had been using with its fuel tank empty, the motor gear selector in neutral, and the ignition key in the ‘on’ position. They also found the anchor rope hooked around the outboard motor’s lower unit.
MSHA investigators believed McMahon had been attempting to remove the anchor rope from around the outboard motor when he fell from the rear walkway of the dredge into the water. They also found McMahon’s life jacket in the boat.
McMahon’s training records showed that he was trained to use a life jacket when working in areas where there was a danger of falling into water. However, while he initially used the life jacket, he wasn’t wearing it at the time of the incident, which investigators found contributed to his death.
Mine closed after incident
MSHA found that the root cause of the incident was the mine operator’s failure to ensure that McMahon wore a life jacket in areas where there was a danger of falling into water.
Instead of re-training its workers or instituting new protocols regarding use of life jackets, Barry Industrial Sand halted its mining operations and submitted a notice of closure in writing to MSHA.