Coal Tattoo

When last we left the world of coal-mine self-contained, self-rescuers, we didn’t really know what was going on with what was initially termed a “recall” of potentially faulty CSE SR-100 units … Well, we still don’t really know much — and the nation’s coal miners, who rely on these little items to save their lives — don’t know much, either.

Recall that back in February, MSHA disclosed the existence of an investigation into problems with the oxygen quick-starter on the SR-100s, saying at the time that it would recall about 4,000 of the units. It turned out the problem may be much bigger — and that CSE hasn’t actually removed any of the potentially defective units from the nation’s coal mines.

The only thing we’ve heard out of NIOSH or MSHA since is this late June NIOSH User Notice, which again seems to indicate an even broader problem than has previously been disclosed:

… NIOSH and MSHA have also been investigating oxygen starter failures observed in field deployed units in the Long Term Field Evaluation (LTFE) Program. The failure mode of the observed failures may, or may not be the same reported by CSE, but the investigation has suggested that rough handling, poor inspection techniques, and exposure to temperatures exceeding manufacturer specifications increase the probability of an oxygen starter failure.

Keep in mind that this is the same line that NIOSH, CSE and MSHA have put forth for years — when miners complained about problems with the SR-100, the agencies and the company always blamed misuse or poor training — and never a more basic problem with the units themselves.

Even while it warns:

The total number of SR-100 devices with oxygen starter problems is not currently known …

NIOSH says:

As stated previously, CSE estimates it is no more than 1 percent in production lots when leaving the factory, but the failure rate can increase with unmonitored exposures to rough handling and temperatures exceeding manufacturer specifications.

The whole program hear for dealing with this issue is to put it back on the miners, as this statement from NIOSH makes clear:

Operators should provide miners with additional supplemental training to ensure that miners know what to do should their SCSR fail to activate. All miners should have ready access to a spare SCSR in case the first one they try to activate fails.

And, in describing the nature of the problem facing miners who are currently carrying SR-100s, NIOSH ignores the fact that mine operators could be made to buy a different model for their workers until issues surrounding CSE’s product are resolved:

Since CSE is not producing the SR-100, no SR-100 replacements are available for deployed units that fail to pass inspection or reach their expiration date.

I’ve been trying to find out more about what’s going on with this problem, but MSHA has not responded to my Freedom of Information Act request, and NIOSH flatly denied my FOIA request to them, saying it was confidential information that, if released, might harm CSE’s business …

NIOSH assured me that they hope to have more to say about the SR-100 problems in October. What’s going to happen if, God forbid, some miner needs to use his SR-100 before then?