MSHA backs off ’emergency’ proximity device rule

August 29, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

When last we checked in on the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, they had already backed off part of their plan for an “emergency temporary standard” to require proximity warning devices on underground coal-mining equipment. As we reported back in mid-July:

… Agency officials have decided to split this rule in half: They’ll issue an ETS for proximity devices on continuous mining machines, and then do through the regular rulemaking process for other mobile equipment. So generally, this means that protections will be put on continuous miners much more quickly than other mobile equipment.

Now, it appears that MSHA has further backed off its plans. In a news release issued a little while ago, agency officials said they now planned to issue a proposed rule on proximity devices for continuous mining machines — meaning no emergency rule of any kind of proximity detection devices.

According to the MSHA release:

Consistent with the principles in the president’s Executive Order on Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review, MSHA is proposing a rule instead of issuing a scheduled emergency temporary standard to provide opportunity for public participation prior to implementation.

MSHA said in the release:

The proposed rule would strengthen the protection of miners working near continuous mining machines by reducing the potential for crushing, pinning and striking hazards. From 1984 through 2010, 30 miners died and 220 were injured when they became crushed, pinned or struck by these machines. Two such fatalities occurred in 2010 and one, to date, in 2011. These fatalities and injuries could have been prevented by use of a proximity detection system.

Readers may recall that MSHA first put this issue on its regulatory agenda back in May of 2009, but didn’t get around to issuing a “request for information” on the matter in February 2010.  Then, in December 2010, MSHA said it planned to issue an “emergency temporary standard” — meaning agency officials felt miners were at grave risk and needed immediate protections — by March 2011.

At the time it announced plans for the emergency rule, MSHA said:

To date, in 2010, there have been five fatalities resulting from crushing and pinning accidents. Mobile equipment can pin, crush, or strike a miner working near the equipment. Proximity detection technology can prevent these types of accidents.

Since then, there’s been at least one other coal-mining death under similar circumstances.

MSHA describes proximity devices this way:

Proximity detection refers to a technology that can be installed on mining machinery to detect the presence of personnel or other machinery within a certain distance. These systems can be programmed to send warning signals and stop machine movement when the programmed areas are breached.

Additionally, proximity detection systems would be required to cause a continuous mining machine to stop at least 3 feet away from a miner unless the machine is remotely cutting coal or rock, in which case it must stop before contacting a miner; provide an audible or visual warning signal when the machine is 5 feet or closer to a miner, except while a continuous mining machine is cutting coal or rock; provide a visual signal on the machine that indicates the system is functioning properly; prevent movement of the machine if the system is not functioning properly; prevent interference with or from other electrical systems; and be installed and maintained by a trained person.

The MSHA news release also notes:

Mines in South Africa already use proximity detection systems on continuous mining machines. To date, MSHA has approved three systems for use in the U.S., which have been installed on at least 35 continuous mining machines.

But MSHA now says it needs more public input, and will hold hearings on its proposal in October, with a comment period through mid-November. The release doesn’t say how long agency officials will take after that to finalize a rule. But it does say:

According to the proposed rule, underground coal mine operators would be required to equip existing continuous mining machines with a proximity detection system within 18 months from the publication date of a final rule to allow operators time to have equipment retrofitted and to train miners and supervisors in the new technology. Newly manufactured continuous mining machines would be required to be equipped within three months of the publication date of a final rule.

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