When the announcement came last week that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were finally doing something about CSE Corps.’s defective SR-100 emergency breathing devices, the talking point was pretty clear: The agency were taking aggressive action, and they really couldn’t move any faster.
MSHA chief Joe Main’s quote in the agency press release read like this:
Due to the large number of CSE SR-100s in underground coal mines, multiple SCSRs available to miners, the low probability of failure and the shortage of immediately available replacements, MSHA and NIOSH have determined that an orderly phase-out will better protect the safety of miners than immediate withdrawal of the devices.
And the United Mine Workers of America certainly had Brother Main’s back. Union spokesman Phil Smith issued this statement:
We have encouraged MSHA to be aggressive in dealing with this issue, and we believe this initiative meets that goal. Though we would like to see these units out of the mines even sooner, there really is no feasible way to replace all the SR-100’s with other approved units much faster than MSHA is calling for because they simply are not available in enough quantities until production of other units ramps up. For the next year, miners who must rely on an SR-100 need to remember to have two with them or within ready reach when they are underground.
Oddly, though, while the UMWA doesn’t think MSHA and Brother Main could move any faster, their statement went on to say that, well, sure, the coal operators could move faster:
We are pleased that MSHA has agreed to our request to instruct inspectors at mines to brief miners directly, on each shift, about this action instead of just posting the information. And, I must point out that there is nothing keeping mine operators from implementing this change ahead of the timeline MSHA has set. Just as MSHA is being more aggressive, we encourage operators to be aggressive as well.
Not to be too much of a pain here, but if if this — there really is no feasible way to replace all the SR-100’s with other approved units much faster than MSHA is calling for because they simply are not available in enough quantities until production of other units ramps up — is true, then how could this — there is nothing keeping mine operators from implementing this change ahead of the timeline MSHA has set — also be true?
If there’s no feasible way to move faster, why is the UMWA suggesting companies should move faster? If there’s nothing keeping mine operators from moving more quickly, why isn’t the UMWA demanding that MSHA force them to do so? I could go on. But I think you get the point.
As I tried to understand MSHA’s slightly confusing timeline for this phase-out of a unit that miners have long complained about — and that Sago survivor Randal McCloy clearly explained didn’t work when he and his coworkers needed them the most — I couldn’t help but think about this story that I wrote way back in December 2006:
A year after the Sago Mine disaster, thousands of West Virginia coal miners are still waiting for the additional emergency breathing devices promised by Gov. Joe Manchin and the coal industry.
Many of the state’s mine operators have placed orders with the nation’s largest manufacturer, CSE Corp., and could be waiting until late 2007 for delivery. CSE’s biggest competitor, Ocenco Inc., has an even longer waiting list.
“My sense is that there is a tremendous backorder,” said Chris Hamilton, a vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association.
At the same time, another supplier, the German company Draeger, has thousands of self-contained self-rescuers, or SCSRs, sitting in a warehouse.
“We don’t have a backlog at all,” Wes Kenneweg, president of Draeger’s North American operations, said in an interview earlier this month.
At Draeger’s warehouse near the Pittsburgh airport, more than 6,500 of its OXY K-Plus units fill row after row of shelves.
Back then, delays in getting new SCSRs into the hands of coal miners weren’t caused by a lack of units or production problems or anything like that. The delays occurred because regulators and lawmakers didn’t give firm enough and quick enough deadlines for the industry to act.