Coal Industry Urged to Build New ‘Culture of Prevention’

December 6, 2006

Coal companies must replace by-the-book compliance with a culture of prevention if they want to eliminate the underground fires and explosions that are killing miners, says a panel of experts releasing recommendations for the industry.

The Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission has studied 25 years of fires and explosions to produce more than 70 recommendations aimed at eliminating deaths and serious injuries in an industry that has had its worst year in decades.

Complying with state and federal regulations is insufficient because not every risk can be addressed in a rapidly changing environment, said Larry Grayson, commission chairman and a professor of mining engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla.

“Unfortunately, it’s easy to interpret that if I comply with the minimum requirements of the law, I’m going to be OK,” Grayson said. “That’s often a bad assumption.”

The report, which was to be unveiled at a mining conference in Pittsburgh, also aims to increase the odds of survival when accidents happen. Suggestions range from investment in new breathing devices and communications technology to reality-based training scenarios for miners and rescue teams.

The report also urges a shift in procedures for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration when it comes to deploying mine-rescue teams. The commission said companies should be able to relax safety standards when lives are at risk and tighten them when property recovery is the sole objective.

Rescue teams did not enter West Virginia’s Sago Mine until 11 hours after the January explosion that trapped and ultimately killed 12 men.

“In cases where miners are trapped, mine operators should exercise their authority to direct rescue teams to begin operations,” the report said. “They should not wait for MSHA direction to do so.”

MSHA must balance the potential for a secondary explosion that could endanger the rescuers with the likelihood of a successful operation. Richard E. Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said he looks forward to reviewing the report, which covers some issues MSHA “has been rigorously studying for some time.”

“Anything that can be done to create a safer and healthier environment for our nation’s miners is worthy of our time and consideration,” he said.

Grayson said the United States has long led the world in efficient coal production, and “there’s no reason why — if we just refocus a little bit — we can’t lead the world in safety, too.”

The industry made steady improvements after the 1977 passage of the Mine Safety and Health Act, and between 1993 and 1999, not a single underground coal miner died in a fire or explosion.

There was a setback in 2001, when 13 miners died in explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Alabama, but in 2005, the industry had a record low of 22 fatalities.

Then came explosions and fires at the Sago and Aracoma coal mines in West Virginia, and at the Darby Mine in Kentucky, followed by a string of smaller accidents.

So far this year, 46 coal miners have died on the job. And the report suggests a continuing urgency for change.

“The best coal reserves have already been mined, and less favorable and more hazardous conditions in future mines will inevitably be encountered,” it says.

At the same time, older miners are retiring, and their replacements lack the experience to adapt to changing work conditions.

The commission was appointed by the National Mining Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, but operated independently, with representatives from coal companies, the United Mine Workers union, mine-rescue teams, and health and safety experts.

“We wanted to have an answer … was this just a year of tragically bad luck, or are there things we should be doing differently?” said Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the NMA. “Clearly, the commission believes there are things we should be doing differently.”

But the call for more individual responsibility will likely find a mixed audience, with some companies readily embracing the idea and some remaining leery.

“We’ve been able to use if not a cookie cutter approach, then something very close. There were certain training practices that worked well for everybody,” Raulston said. “What the Grayson report says is that if we’re really going to get to zero fatalities — and that’s where we want to be — we’re going to have to use a different process to get at the rest of this.”

UMW President Cecil Roberts said he is pleased with the breadth of the report and its emphasis on operator responsibility. But the provisions should be mandatory or companies that scrimp on safety will have a competitive advantage.

“We shouldn’t be competing in this industry based on who’s willing to spend money on miner health and safety,” he said. “Companies that have done this are to be commended, but that should be the example the entire industry has to follow.”

The association will share the report with its 325 member companies and may hold workshops and seminars on its suggestions, Raulston said.

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