Coal Tattoo

Why doesn’t MSHA move faster on SCSR phase out?

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.

CSE Corp. president Scott Shearer, talks about the demand for the emergency air packs CSE pioneered for coal mining while in the corporate offices in Monroeville, Pa.,Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

So when I got a chance to interview Joe Main on Thursday about the SCSR action, I was especially interested in what his agency had learned in any discussions with SCSR manufacturers about their production rates. Interestingly, he said MSHA has been told that the three SCSR makers — CSE (with its new model), Drager and Ocenco — can produce about 6,000 units per month. Doesn’t that mean that the current producers can provide the industry with enough units to replace the 66,000 that are out there in the mines within 11 months? So why then did MSHA give the industry 20 months — nearly twice the time needed to produce the units — to complete this phase-out action?

Well, here’s what MSHA told me when I asked just that question:

For an orderly transition to take place, a number of steps are involved.

Many plans (as referenced in the Program Information Bulletin) will have to be revised, and training will need to be tailored to the SCSR models that replace the SR-100s.

It takes time to ramp up production, orders, distribution, etc. The various types of SCSRs have different characteristics, and mine operators can choose a particular unit or combination of units to meet the needs of their operation and the regulations.

While we estimate that 6,000 total units can be produced per month, not all units can be interchanged in caches, on belts, etc. In addition, mine operators may want to stay consistent with the model they have chosen for their mine, and not co-mingle different SCSRs, to make training easier and lessen potential confusion for miners.

I asked the National Mining Association about the phase-out action, and their spokeswoman Carol Raulston told me the industry finds even the extended MSHA timeline “problematic,” adding, when I asked her to explain:

As you know, a lot of SCSRs were put in place after MINER Act, so a lot more to deal with while still remaining in compliance. [NMA vice president for safety] Bruce [Watzman] says there are two manufacturers beyond the company in the recall. That’s still a limited universe.

Maybe MSHA, the UMWA and the NMA are right, and this whole thing is just so much more complicated than I thought. But aren’t the words of Sago survivor Randal McCloy haunting? Remember what he said about how he and his co-workers couldn’t get their SR-100s to work properly. Most heartbreaking was McCloy describing how he tried to get the device belonging to his mining partner, disaster victim Jerry Groves, to work:

You put air into it, you moved it, but there was nothing going on with it  That’s what told me right there it was broken. I fought with it for I don’t know how long, trying to mess with that valve, blow air through it, or anything I could do, but nothing would work.

MSHA investigators dismissed this story, saying tests after the disaster showed the devices worked fine. But the problems that McCloy described, and that his lawyers for the Sago families were investigating before their suits were settled, sound quite a lot like the defects that NIOSH eventually identified six years later in its SR-100 investigation.  In his report on the Sago disaster, independent investigator Davitt McAteer described what the problems getting their SCSRs started led the Sago miners to do:

The apparent failure of some of their SCSRs to generate oxygen may have doomed the miners trapped on Two Left. Without enough functioning SCSRs to go around, they could not have tried to walk out of the mine, knowing that they would making their way through lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide and that any miner without a working SCSR would rapidly succumb. And it is impossible to imagine any of them, in that situation, simply walking away from their fellow miners.

Hopefully, this phase-out timeline will work just fine. If not, someone is going to have to explain to a grieving family why they just couldn’t have moved any faster.