Officials discuss mining strategies, technology at symposium
Adopting advanced technologies and strengthening enforcement of regulations improve safety in the coal mining industry.
The two strategies were among the issues addressed by officials from government, industry and academia at the International Mining Health and Safety Symposium conducted July 28 and July 29 in Salt Lake City.
The conference started with a moment of silence in memory of the six miners and three rescuers who died in the tragedy at Crandall Canyon coal mine last August.
Crandall Canyon and incidents occurring during the last two years at Sago and Ara coma mines in West Virginia created a sense of urgency that echoed throughout the symposium.
"We cannot let these miners die in vain," said forum organizer Davitta McAteer, vice president for sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University and former assistant labor secretary for the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration. "This event is a first step. It involves representatives from all areas that are integral to the process of improving safety. We must be able to assure miners that we can protect them because we understand the issues."
The Crandall Canyon accident was attributed to bumps or bursts - sudden violent failures of coal and enclosing strata that displace large amounts of material.
The symposium included a panel of national experts who addressed recent research and developments in controlling stress and energy levels along with utilizing seismic monitoring data for prediction and prevention. The seismic monitoring technology is used in the oil industry and South African gold mines.
In addition to seismic monitoring, tunnel boring was identified as a technology that could exceed the process' original application and assist in mine rescue operations.
"The answer is in the rocks," indicated McAteer. "Once we fully understand the rocks, including coal, then we can mine the coal safely."
Referring to initiatives inspired by recent mine tragedies, Consol Energy president and chief executive officer Brett Harvey renewed the 2007 call for "zero accidents." He described the top down, zero accidents approach recently started throughout the company.
"Productivity does not trump safety," pointed out Harvey. "The better we are at the technology, the safer the mine will be. But there is a behavioral side as well."
The company's president described Consol's policy of empowering employees at all levels to cease activity when an unsafe situation is observed or encountered without fear of repercussions.
"They have my support and any repercussions will be investigated," said Harvey, referring to employees who report unsafe conditions or behaviors.
A zero accident based training program is also part of the initiative.
Assistant secretary of labor at MSHA Richard Stickler echoed Harvey's support of a top-down approach to safety.
"We at MSHA are serious about improving mine safety and will use every available tool to do that," said Stickler. "Miners deserve nothing less."
Stickler discussed changes recently initiated at MSHA to improve mine safety. The measures included increasing the number of on-site visits during which inspectors create awareness of risks and encourage operators to follow safety procedures.
MSHA initiatives also include beefed-up employee training on ground-control software, posting on the website a list of best practices for deep-cut mining, re-examining ground control plans and establishing an office of accountability.
Recent approval of emergency plans in coal mines has resulted in reduced response times and an emphasis on enforcement has increased the number of safety violation penalties to 140,000 per year, reported Stickler.
MSHA officials and representatives from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health discussed advances in communications and tracking technologies, including MineTracer, a wireless system designed specifically for use in underground mines. MSHA recently approved application of the MineTracer technology.
"It's a new age for communications and tracking in mines," said David Chirdon of MSHA. "In two years, you won't be able to recognize the environment in terms of what you will be able to do in communications and tracking."
"We will not tolerate accidents. We need to be able to go underground, on the surface, and mine minerals safely and then bring those miners home," concluded McAteer.
The Utah Labor Commission and Wheeling Jesuit University's national technology transfer center coordinated the symposium. Sponsors included MSHA, NIOSH, the United Mine Workers of America, Utah, the labor commission and the Utah Mining Association.