Will Obama MSHA stop ‘unacceptable’ mine deaths?

February 22, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Obama administration MSHA chief Joe Main had some pretty tough words the other day, following the latest in a series of coal-mining deaths in West Virginia and elsewhere:

The six deaths that occurred over the last month are tragic and unacceptable, and MSHA will take whatever actions are necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of all our miners.

But like West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Joe Main’s actions don’t quite match his words … As Kris Maher pointed out this week in The Wall Street Journal:

A coal-mine safety rule, proposed two years ago but not yet adopted, might have prevented recent deaths of miners, including one last week, according to safety experts and the industry’s National Mining Association.

The rule, unveiled by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in August 2011, would require the installation of sensors on critical underground equipment known as the “continuous miner,” massive low-slung machines with spinning drums that grind into coal seams.

The sensors shut down the machine when workers are detected nearby, keeping them from being injured or run over.

Some companies already have installed the sensors and the industry favors adopting the rule, but balked at an expedited time frame in 2011. A separate rule is expected to be proposed this summer requiring sensors on other mobile machinery, such as shuttle cars or scoops used to transport coal.

We’ve written many times about these proximity detection devices rules (see here, here, here and here, for example). As Kris explained in his story:

Since 2010, six miners have died after being crushed or struck by continuous mining machines. A 28-year-old Illinois coal miner was killed Feb. 13 when he was pinned between a continuous miner and a solid wall of coal, while a 44-year-old West Virginia miner was killed Tuesday after being hit by a scoop.

So far, a total of six coal miners have been killed in 2013, all in a one-month period, which is considered unusually high, especially since safety precautions have been stepped up in the wake of the explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 in April 2010.

Not for nothing, but of the five such coal-mining deaths that have occurred since MSHA proposed a proximity detection device rule for continuous mining machines, four of them occurred in West Virginia (see here, here, here, here and here). While state officials say they have done everything they can to make West Virginia’s mine safe, they didn’t bother to include their own proximity device requirement in last year’s “comprehensive” mine safety legislation. When MSHA came to West Virginia for a public hearing on its proximity rule proposal, the West Virginia Coal Association couldn’t be bothered to talk about it — and instead tried to take over the hearing to carry on one of former Massey Energy Don Blankenship’s personal crusades against federal regulators.

The latest West Virginia miner to die in one of these preventable crushing accidents was John Houston Myles, 44, of Hilltop. According to the obituary in the Beckley paper, Myles was a Desert Storm veteran, and he and his wife were married underground at the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley. The obit notice lists 2 sons, four daughters and one grandchild.

By way of background, Kris notes in his story:

Industry and safety officials have long known of risks posed by the machines, which typically are operated via remote control by a worker standing nearby and produce about half of underground coal mined in the U.S. Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners were killed and 220 injured as a result of being crushed, pinned or struck by continuous miners, according to the U.S.

 

On Friday, November 30, 2012, a 27-year old electrician was killed when he was caught between a battery-powered maintenance scoop and the cutting head of a continuous mining machine. The accident occurred on a working section while the electrician was performing maintenance work on the cutting head of the continuous mining machine, which was parked in an entry.

Kris goes on to write:

In response, the MSHA considered issuing an emergency temporary standard in March 2011, which would have required that sensors be installed quickly, without a public comment period. The agency changed course in the face of concerns by the industry that the time frame was unrealistic, and instead pursued a longer regulatory process.

But what he doesn’t explain in his story is that MSHA had said as far back as December 2009 that it was going to publish an emergency rule … Nearly two years went by, and when MSHA announced in August 2011 that it was going to issue a proposed rule — not an emergency standard that would take effect right away — the reason it cited, as we wrote at the time,  for not moving more quickly was President Obama’s Executive Order on Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed commentary, President Obama himself explained the purpose of that executive order was to stop rules “that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive.”

Would the proximity detection device requirements do those things? Well, in its proposal to require them on continuing mining machines, MSHA projected that, within three years, the annual benefits of the rule would be $10.7 million — in avoided deaths and injuries — compared to a yearly cost of $8.2 million.

In his story, Kris quoted Joe Main as giving yet a different excuse for MSHA’s delay:

Mr. Main, in an interview Thursday, defended the decision not to adopt an emergency rule, saying it wouldn’t have been practical, given the complexity of developing the technology and retrofitting existing continuous mining machines. “This was not something that you were going to snap your fingers and get done right away,” he said.

He also noted that MSHA is already moving forward on the rule and has worked with companies to install sensors on 207 continuous miners, about one-fourth of machines currently in use.

Mr. Main said he didn’t want to comment on recent accidents still under investigation, but said, “it looks like proximity detection could have been preventative.” He said he didn’t know of a case where a worker was injured by a continuous miner with a sensor.

On Wednesday, February 13, 2013, a 28-year-old continuous mining machine operator was killed when he was pinned between the tail of the remote controlled continuous mining machine and the coal rib. The victim had mined the first two lifts of the cut sequence in the No. 1 entry. While repositioning the continuous mining machine to mine the final cut on left side, the victim was pinned between the tail of the machine and the coal rib on the right side. The victim had 4 years and 2 months of mining experience, with 6 months of experience as a continuous mining machine operator.

And it sounds like from what Kris wrote that the mining industry can move much more quickly on these devices when the cost of not doing so becomes more clear:

Steve Carter, president of Knight Hawk Coal LLC in Percy, Ill., where a worker died Feb. 13, said the company was in the process of purchasing sensors for its eight continuous miners and will have one machine with a sensor “fairly soon.”

The public comment period on MSHA’s first proximity detection rule (for mining machines) closed way back on Nov. 28, 2011. The final rule is now scheduled to be completed in May. They’ve yet to issue their other proposed rule, which would cover other mobile underground equipment. That proposal has been stuck at the White House Office of Management and Budget since Sept. 16, 2011.

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