Coal Tattoo

Scott Shearer, president of CSE Corp., says his company has not actually “recalled” any of its potentially defective emergency coal-mining breathing devices.

The Associated Press has picked up on the story covered here and in the Gazette previously (see here, here, here and here) concerning problems with the most widely used emergency breathing device in the U.S. coal industry.

But the AP story focuses on questions about whether any action by MSHA or NIOSH to get potentially defective CSE Corp. SR-100 devices out of the mines would cause a problem for mining companies seeking to comply with requirements that they provide such devices for their miners.

The real issue here, though, is probably why MSHA and NIOSH aren’t saying more about this problem publicly, and whether the mining community and the public have been misled about the severity of the problem and what is being done about it.

Earlier this month when I was preparing this Gazette story, I interviewed CSE President Scott Shearer to try to follow-up on the new “User Notice” his company had issued warning that problems with the SR-100’s quick-start mechanism might not work if miners needed the devices to help them escape a fire or explosion.

A couple of interesting things came up during our chat.

First, Shearer kept mentioning the figure 11,000 units … and I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about — since the initial reports from CSE a few months earlier were that 4,000 units were affected by the problem. When I asked him about this big discrepancy, Shearer suggested that I got the number wrong in the initial story — that his company never said 4,000 units were involved.

Huh … I make plenty of mistakes, but I didn’t think I’d made that one. So I checked the news release that CSE issued back in February and here’s what it said under the heading of  “Frequently Asked Questions”:

How many units are affected by the recall?

CSE is being proactive and withdrawing the entire production lot of over 4,000 SR-100s from the field but estimates that less than one percent of this production lot may be affected.

And then, when I started asking Shearer how many units his company had actually taken out of the mines because of the quick-starter defect, Shearer seemed surprised and said none … he didn’t seem to understand why I was asking. Again, it’s easy to understand if you look at what CSE said in its news release back in February:

The voluntary recall includes withdrawal and replacement of the entire production lot even though this issue may only affect as little as one percent of those units.

And under FAQs:

How will CSE remove the recalled units from the field?

CSE will be contacting customers to locate the recalled units, remove them from the field and replace them.

Shearer told me his company wasn’t doing this, and blamed the government, saying NIOSH and MSHA wouldn’t let him do so. That turns out to be only partly right … It’s correct that MSHA and NIOSH won’t let CSE put any more SR-100s into the mines while a fix for the quick-start problem is still being sought.  MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere told me yesterday:

CSE is under a voluntary stop sale. NIOSH and MSHA told them that as long as they do this voluntarily, there is no need for the agencies to issue a formal stop sale letter. However, if they try to go back into production before they solve the problem, we will issue a formal letter of stop sale. They agreed to those terms.

But, neither NIOSH nor MSHA is stopping CSE from taking back — recalling — any of the potentially defective units.  But if CSE did that, mine operators would have to replace the recalled SR-100s with another product — from another manufacturer. (An issue the Gazette has covered before is that the insistence of so many mining companies on using CSE’s SCSRs delayed getting additional devices into the mines to comply with the post-Sago reforms).

Instead of that route, MSHA and NIOSH are going along with CSE’s plan to emphasize better training to encourage miners to take other steps if they need an SCSR and their SR-100 quick-start mechanism fails: Either grab a spare unit and try it, or use the “manual start,” process that requires miners to take in potentially hazardous mine air to get the unit going following a fire or explosion.

Louviere, the MSHA spokeswoman, explained it this way:

The guidance provided to operators by CSE, MSHA, and NIOSH is that if a CSE SR-100 does not provide oxygen from the start-up cylinder, the miner should obtain another SCSR, and only attempt the manual start as a last resort. As stipulated in the MINER Act and MSHA regulations, all miners should have access to a second SCSR at their workplaces. Operators are required to provide additional SCSRs in outby caches, at regular intervals, in primary and secondary escapeways. Additional SCSRs are also provided on mantrips.

She added:

MSHA is currently evaluating options for operators to maintain compliance with regulations if SCSRs are not available from CSE, and will soon be issuing guidance.

In the meantime, don’t forget that the failure of the quick-start mechanism sounds very much like the very problem that Sago survivor Randal McCloy described — and that the inability to get several of the Sago SCSRs started this way was part of the reason Sago miners decided to barricade themselves rather than just walk out of the mine.

Former MSHA chief Davitt McAteer, in his report on the Sago Disaster, recommended pushing ahead with development of a “next-generation” SCSR, noting that the SR-100 technology is more than two decades old.

During his testimony last week to a Senate subcommittee, NIOSH director John Howard noted his agency awarded a contract more than three years ago for the development of such a device … but he also noted that the product has yet to even apply for certification for use in active underground mines … as McAteer warned in his Sago report:

Without some such stimulus, it could be many years — even another generation — before a next-generation SCSR is developed, tested for performance and reliability, approved by MSHA, and purchased by coal operators. Miners working today do not have the luxury of waiting that long for the safety protection they need now.