Coal Tattoo

SCSR troubles: What’s a coal miner to do?

A government photo shows the SCSRs that Sago miners tried to use to survive after the January 2006 explosion.

We broke the story in this morning’s Gazette about what federal mine safety regulators are calling a plan to “phase out” the troubled SR-100 self-contained, self-rescuer devices manufactured and marketed for years by CSE Corp.

According to the latest word from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, government investigators have found a failure rate in the SR-100’s oxygen starter bottle system of between 1.25 and 2.0 percent.

That may not sound like much … But remember, there are at least 70,000 SR-100 units out there — in the mines, being worn by coal miners and stored for their potential use in caches deep underground. If the error rate is correct — and NIOSH officials told me they could be low-balling it — then even the 1.25 percent failure rate means 875 miners could be relying on SCSRs that will fail when they need them most.

In the 18 months or so that NIOSH and MSHA have been investigating the SR-100, I haven’t heard one single word from any elected official about this issue. Not a word. And remember how our elected leaders in the coalfields are constantly telling us how important coal miners are, how their health and safety is the most important thing …

And what about NIOSH and MSHA? Well, if they want to phase out the SR-100, you sure wouldn’t know it. The NIOSH notice about the failure rates doesn’t mention it. And I couldn’t find a word about it on MSHA’s website.

Why won’t former coal miner and longtime United Mine Workers safety director — now head of MSHA — Joe Main explain this problem to the nation’s miners, clearly telling them the risks that they face, let alone take strong action to force mine operators to replace these potentially faulty units?

MSHA and NIOSH — along with CSE — have been dancing around this situation for quite a while now. As I wrote in today’s print story:

SCSRs received new public attention five years ago, after Sago Mine Disaster survivor Randal McCloy testified that the SCSRs of four of the 12 miners trapped by the Jan. 2, 2006, explosion wouldn’t start.

Over the years, coal miners had expressed similar complaints about SCSRs not starting or appearing to start slowly. Government and industry officials have generally dismissed those complaints. They said the problem was that miners weren’t properly trained or didn’t understand how their SCSRs worked.

It turns out that those coal miners might have had a point all along. But since the investigation started,  CSE has less than forthcoming about what was going on:

In late February [of 2010], Monroeville, Pa.-based CSE announced what it said at the time was a “recall” of more than 4,000 units because of concerns about the oxygen starter mechanism.

But contrary to the company’s press release, CSE has not actually recalled any of the potentially affected units. None have been taken out of service or replaced, company president Scott Shearer said in an interview.

Instead, CSE is warning miners that the units might not start initially and urging mine operators to update training on a backup manual startup procedure.

“If for any reason a unit does not inflate the breathing bag, the user should don another unit if one is readily available,” CSE said in a user notice issued Monday. “If a second unit is not readily available, the manual start should be used.”

CSE is clearly touting its new unit, called the Self-Rescuer Long Duration, or SRLD, saying in press releases:

The new SRLD offers a 40 percent faster production of oxygen at the start up, as well as a 10 percent total increase in oxygen production. In other words, the SRLD produces more oxygen more quickly to the miners who need it.

But neither NIOSH nor MSHA — the agencies jointly charged with regulating SCSRs used in the nation’s mines — have tested the accuracy of these marketing claims. And Scott Shearer (above), president of CSE, has not made himself available to answer questions about these issues.

Even if the new device works as CSE says it does, you still have the problem of those SR-100 units out there in the mines — nobody really knows for sure how many of them might have the oxygen starter problem.

NIOSH officials told me this is “a huge concern” and that they’re working with MSHA on a plan for deal with it. MSHA’s Jeff Kravitz revealed that plan involves some sort of a phase out of the SR-100 … but how long will it take?  Kravitz noted that the last batches of SR-100s were made in January 2010, so their standard life would mean they normally wouldn’t be replaced until 2020.

What are MSHA and NIOSH going to do to hurry things up? So far, they aren’t saying.

The plan for now seems to be to advise coal miners to look around for another SCSR if their SR-100 don’t start when they need it.

That notion reminded me of the story of Timothy Blake, who survived the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster — saving one of his coworkers and bravely trying to save others, by donning his SCSR and putting his buddies’ units on them. Do we really expect Mr. Blake to have looked around and found another SCSR on a cache somewhere while he was struggling for his life and the lives of his friends?