Coal Tattoo

Safety update: Industry tries to change the subject

I would have sworn that the Federal Register notice said that today’s U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration hearing was to accept public comments on MSHA’s proposal to finally require mine operators to begin installing “proximity detection systems” on continuous mining machines in underground coal operations.

But then my old buddy Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, went to the microphone and started to speak … and the next thing you knew, we were talking about the industry’s continued complaints that MSHA isn’t moving quickly enough to approve mine operators proposals for “extended cuts” of coal in underground mines. Ever the master of understatement, Chris told MSHA officials at the hearing this morning in Charleston:

MSHA’s reluctance to approve this method of mining places hundreds of miners in harm’s way at an alarming rate in West Virginia’s underground mines.

Now, regular readers may recall that this was former Massey Energy CEO’s Don Blankenship’s crusade, an issue Blankenship brought up just a month after 29 of his company’s miners were blown up at Upper Big Branch (see here and here).   And this is not the first time that the coal association and its members have tried to hijack an MSHA public hearing on one issue and turn it into a publicity show on a different topic. They did it a year ago when MSHA came to town to try to gather input on a proposal to tighten the outdated standards for rock-dusting to control the underground buildup of explosive coal dust.

Hamilton tried to make the issue relevant to the ongoing rulemaking on proximity devices, by arguing that extended cuts mean fewer continuous mining machine moves and thus less potential exposure for workers to moving equipment in tight and confined underground tunnels.

Of course, we’ve heard MSHA’s Kevin Stricklin explain before the significant safety concerns agency officials have regarding the combined use of extended cuts and scrubbers, and it’s clear that MSHA is going to be looking at such mining plans very closely because of ventilation and roof control issues — not to mention continued worries that some operators are doing illegal extended cuts.

And in the process, Chris neglected to provide MSHA any real input into what a federal rule on proximity devices might look like — well, except to say that federal regulators are moving too quickly and to be sure to get in a line about the Obama administration’s “war on coal.” By contrast, an official from Joy Manufacturing provided some detailed comments about what his company believes would be a strain put on efforts to retrofit existing continuous mining machines under MSHA’s proposal to phase-in proximity device requirements over 18 months.

At one point, Chris got into quite a back-and-forth with Greg Wagner, MSHA’s deputy assistant secretary for policy (above), in which Chris tried to argue that MSHA should just continue education and training efforts on confined space work with mobile mining equipment, rather than putting a rule in place to require equipment already being used in some other countries and available right now in the U.S.

“I believe those approaches appear to be sufficient,” Chris told Greg Wagner.


Here’s what MSHA said in its proposed rule:

Of the deaths in underground coal mines from 1984 through 2010, MSHA estimates that 30 could have been prevented by installing proximity detection systems on continuous mining machines. During this time period, of all the injuries due to pinning, crushing and striking accidents in underground coal mines, approximately 220 could have been prevented with proximity detection systems installed on continuous mining machines.

Proximity detection systems are needed because training and outreach initiatives alone have not prevented these accidents and the systems can provide necessary protections for miners. In 2004, MSHA introduced a special initiative to inform underground coal mine operators and miners about the dangers of pinning, crushing, or striking hazards, MSHA’s outreach efforts included webcasts, special alerts, videos, bulletins, and inspector-to-miner instruction. Despite these efforts, pinning, crushing and striking accidents still occur. There were two fatalities and four injuries in 2010 where a continuous mining machine pinned, crushed, or struck a miner. In 2011, a continuous mining machine operator was fatally injured. The preliminary report of the accident states the operator was pinned by the machine.

After this morning’s hearing, I asked Dennis O’Dell, director of safety and health for the United Mine Workers of America, what he thought of Chris Hamilton’s speech about extended cuts … Dennis told me:

The coal association’s time would be better spent on the issue the hearing is about .