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Alarm bells ring over mine safety after Kellingley colliery death

Rigorous inquiry promised in wake of news that British mines have now claimed five lives in two weeks

Safety officials from the UK’s coal-mining industry are meeting to calm nerves after five deaths underground in a fortnight and an admission from colliery managers that the record over the past five years is “unacceptable”.

Although small numbers in the context of coal mining’s terrible history – including many tragedies that claimed hundreds of lives up to the 1950s – a steep rise from three deaths between 2000 and 2006 to 17 in the past six years has set alarm bells ringing.

The latest victim is Gerry Gibson, 49, a “highly skilled and well respected coalface worker” according to the National Union of Mineworkers, who on Tuesday evening became the third miner to die at Kellingley in North Yorkshire in the past four years. The record at the “superpit”, which has 800 workers who are among the most productive in Europe, is causing particular concern.

The colliery’s owner, UK Coal, issued a joint statement with the NUM after the tragedy, promising a rigorous inquiry into how an apparently safe and well-used area near the foot of the pit’s twin shafts had become a fatal trap. Mr Gibson, a married father of two with 32 years’ experience in the industry, was crushed by a roof fall which also trapped a colleague, named locally as Philip Sheldon, who was dug out with minor leg injuries.

Andrew Macintosh of UK Coal said at Kellingley: “At present we are at a loss to understand why this happened. The men were working in a good seam where machinery costing millions of pounds had been recently installed. We try to make sure that the pit is a safe working environment and investigations will examine every aspect of this incident to determine what happened and why.”

All work has been halted at the pit which supplies fuel to the line of power stations along the M62 motorway between Leeds and Hull, as well as smaller amounts of household coal.

The NUM held back from detailed comment on the incident but the union’s general secretary, Chris Kitchen, said: “It’s tragic what’s happened and it should never have happened and the investigation will conclude what did go wrong. But the workforce at Kellingley are a family in every sense of the word. They look after each other, they cover each other’s back. And when anything like this happens, it just devastates everybody.”

Pat Carragher, chief executive of the British Association of Colliery Management, said that the meeting of the mining industry safety and leadership group which advises the Health and Safety Executive – and of which he is a member – would inevitably question whether there was a worsening trend of accidents. The meeting, on Thursday morning, was arranged before the Kellingley incident but after the death of four coalface workers at Gleision colliery in South Wales – half the little pit’s underground workforce – when water and debris flooded in, probably from old workings.

Carragher said: “The Health and Safety Executive has been very aggressive on this front and I understand why they are taking that approach. In the HSE some people have questioned the industry and asked whether there been a loss of collective memory here as the older generation has left.

“We cannot pre-empt the inquiries into these latest cases. But over the past few years there have been a couple of occasions where there has been human error. People have done something unwittingly, or they’ve done something that I find hard believe they didn’t know was dangerous. History demonstrates that if you take short cuts you run a greater risk of an accident.”

He said that the meeting would not pre-empt the ongoing inquiries but would inevitably discuss the whole range of safety precautions, from training to competency tests, supervision standards and monitoring by management and the Mines Inspectorate.

A well-known figure from the older mining generation, Ken Capstick, former vice-president of the NUM’s Yorkshire region and past editor of the union paper the Miner, said: “We have a lot fewer miners in the this country than we had years ago – some 4,000 – and the number of fatalities is still far too high. The question of safety in the mines has to be looked at again to stop more fatalities.”

Colleagues of Gerry Gibson rallied round his wife, Brenda, and family at home in Sherburn in Elmet. Mr Gibson’s son Sean, 21, posted a tribute on Facebook saying: “RIP dad. Love and miss you always. Still can’t believe it.” His niece Claire Traynor added: “The best uncle in the world.” Sean’s brother Andrew, 18, works as an electrical fitter for UK Coal.

Two colleagues of Mr Gibson have died at Kellingley: in 2008, when Don Cook was killed by a rock fall, and 2009 when Ian Cameron was fatally injured by equipment which fell on him. Cameron’s widow, Carol, said of Kellingley: “It should be shut down. How many other men are going to get killed down there? I don’t think it’s safe at all. It can’t be or these accidents wouldn’t be happening.” © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds