Explosions in 2006 at the Sago coal mine and in 2010 at Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that resulted in the deaths of miners have focused attention on improving ways workers can escape in the event of a disaster.
A study on improving self-escape methods was released Thursday by the National Research Council. An ad hoc committee under the National Academy of Science that studied the issue held its first hearing in Washington County in January 2012, bringing together experts from the mining industry, technology and communication companies. It reviewed what skills and decision-making characteristics are most effective in saving miners’ lives.
Federal regulators and safety officials should consider requiring more backup air supplies and work to develop better breathing devices that would help the nation’s coal miners escape underground emergencies, the report recommends.
It also makes seven wide-ranging recommendations to two agencies – the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the National Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Among other things, it urges better technology, including systems for communicating with people on the surface, real-time gas monitors and fail-safe tracking devices.
The report doesn’t propose new laws or regulations, instead focusing on ways to better equip the nation’s 50,000 underground miners.
Scrutiny of both industry and regulators has increased since Sago, where 12 miners died, though the report says more must be done. The Upper Big Branch mine explosion, which killed 29 West Virginia miners in April 2010, is “a reminder to remain ever vigilant.”
The report also urges MSHA and NIOSH to re-examine how they approve new technology to make sure they’re not deterring innovation – a suggestion that Bruce Watzman of the National Mining Association said is critical.
Bureaucratic barriers can keep new technologies from being introduced in the U.S. for months or years, even when they’re successfully used in South Africa, Australia and other developed nations, he said.
“If we have technologies that have gone through rigorous testing by other responsible international bodies, why the necessity for us to go through the entirety of the process again here?” he said.
Although federal laws are now stronger and the industry has spent nearly $1 billion on emergency preparations since 2006, the report says there’s little research to indicate how well mine operators have complied with new regulations or whether they’ve been effective.
The industry and NIOSH must work to promote safety “as a core value of the industry,” the report said.
The committee also recommended more research on effective, science-based materials, training and procedures to help miners make better decisions in crisis.
Some of the council’s specific recommendations included:
• Mine operators should conduct yearly self-escape exercises at every underground mine;
• Requirements for emergency supplies of breathable air should be reviewed by NIOSH and MSHA;
• The functionality of breathable air devices should be improved;
• Technologies should be developed that will accelerate efforts to enhance self-escape;
• NIOSH and MSHA should re-examine their technology approval and certification process to ensure they are not deterring innovation;
• NIOSH should expand its culture of safety and close training gaps;
• More research is needed to create self-escape materials, training and protocols for effective decision making during a mine emergency.
• Training should be developed that emphasizes mastery of competency standards. The report noted that “currently self-escape training for miners, responsible persons, and responsible person teams seems to be piecemeal in the mining industry as a whole.”
Noting that the number of training facilities capable of preparing miners and responsible person teams in escape is insufficient, it recommends portable training simulators be considered for rural areas. It said successful self-escape is not a solo effort and its success depends on coordinated planning, training and other strategies long before a disaster occurs.