Report: More work needed on coal-mine rescue

March 14, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

There’s a new report out today from the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council.  It’s called Improving Self-Escape from Underground Coal Mines, and here’s the conclusion:

Although recent advances in mining research and practices have improved the safety and health of underground coal miners and extensive rescue strategies are in place, more coordinated planning and training are needed to better prepare miners to escape in the event of a mine emergency … For self-escape, miners need working knowledge of their surroundings, appropriate equipment and technology, and effective communication and decision-making skills …  Successful self-escape is not a solo effort, and it begins well before an emergency occurs.  Coordinated planning, training, technology use, and research strategies across mine operations are needed to empower mine workers with the ability to self-escape.  

After the Sago Mine Disaster in 2006, we published a number of stories about problems with the nation’s mine rescue system (see here, here and here, for example). More recently, we’ve also focused on problems with the most widely-used SCSRs (see here and here). West Virginia’s Legislature acted and Congress, of course, responded with passage of mine rescue reforms contained in the Miner Act.

Now, a committee appointed by the National Research Council has recommended that more be done, including:

— Operators and federal agencies should make systematic, regular efforts to collect and analyze information from drills and escape situations and make outcomes and lessons learned available to stakeholders for future improvements.

— Both the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) should review their operational requirements for emergency supplies of breathable air, and NIOSH should allocate funds for research and development to improve the functionality of breathable air devices. These improved devices should resolve problems with verbal communication, device weight and size, changeover or air replenishment in toxic environments, and adequate vision.

— NIOSH and MSHA should accelerate efforts to develop other technologies that enhance miners’ ability to escape, such as devices that improve communications among miners and between miners and the surface, real-time gas monitors, and fail-safe tracking mechanisms.

— NIOSH and MSHA should re-examine their technology approval and certification process to ensure they are not deterring innovation in relation to self-escape technologies.

— More research is needed to create self-escape materials, training, and protocols for effective decision making during a mine emergency.

— Training should be developed that emphasizes mastery of competency standards rather than duration and class time.

— NIOSH should expand their safety culture efforts to inform the mining industry.

Committee chair William Marras, professor in the integrated systems engineering department at Ohio State University, Columbus, said:

Escaping during the early stages of a mine emergency is critical, and every emergency has different circumstances, resources, and physical and psychological demands. Many improvements in mine safety, especially regulation, have historically followed major mine disasters.  A proactive, integrated approach is needed to improve the best chances for success.

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