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Fatality Investigation: Mining Plant Electrican Dies After Railcar Fall

Jan. 9, 2019
Superior Silica Sands receives two MSHA citations after a fatality at its San Antonio, Texas plant.

On June 23, 2018,  46-year-old Superior Silica Sands electrician Rodney Fernandez asked coworker Chad Thomsen if he needed assistance removing a defective railcar from service.

The Superior Silica Sands plant at which they workers are employed utilized the railcars to store sand that would be transferred to an overland beltline. Additionally, approximately once a month, two railcars are loaded with sand for transport to Mexico.

The two San Antonio-based employees worked to uncouple the cars. According to a Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigation, Thomsen, a plant manager, instructed Fernandez during the process.

Thomsen explained how to set the manual handbrakes on the two railcars, but he did not set the manual handbrakes himself.  He then climbed into a Rail King 300 Trackmobile coupled to the number one car and left Fernandez to uncouple the number five rail car, approximately 250 ft. away, MSHA stated.

Fernandez motioned Thomsen by hand to pull the three railcars. Thomsen began the task, but immediately stopped once he noticed his coworker was no longer visible. Thomsen discovered Fernandez lying unresponsive between the tracks and called emergency services.

Fernandez was air lifted to University Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.  The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office personnel pronounced his death.

Plant Operator Emiliano Gonzales witnessed the incident as it occurred. He observed Fernandez attempting to set the manual handbrake. Gonzales entered his office for a moment, and when he walked out he saw Fernandez being struck by the railcar and ejected from underneath an adjoining railcar. He immediately radioed for help as well.

Upon notification of the incident, MHSA opened investigation and discovered the accident occurred because the mine operator did not ensure that the manual handbrakes or air brakes were set on the two railcars before uncoupling and moving the train.

In addition, Superior Silica Sands did not provide new task training to Fernandez for performing this type of work.

According to MSHA, Fernandez had been employed at San Antonio Plant for 10 weeks and 3 days and had no previous mining or rail experience.  He was in the process of being task trained on maintenance activities in the plant. However, this training did not include rail training.

The agency issued two citations, concluding that Super Silica Sands Management engaged in “aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence in that it did not ensure or instruct the miner to set the manual handbrakes or block the two cars from movement prior to uncoupling”

The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 states that an untrained miner is a hazard to himself and to others. Because the company’s management also failed to train Fernandez, it was cited for unwarrantable failure to comply with a mandatory standard.

MSHA's full report and conclusion are available on the agency's website.

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