According to a report published in West Virginia’s Gazette-Mail on Aug. 24 the five-year-old recommendation to adopt a rule that would require proximity detection systems on all underground mining equipment has not been implemented on a state or federal level.
Some companies such as CONSOL and Alliance Coal have voluntarily installed the systems and state inspectors sometimes mandate proximity detection equipment as an additional safety measure — but only after miners are killed, the Gazette-Mail reported.
In September 2008, a team of state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training inspectors recommended the state require all underground mine operators to install proximity detection systems to shut off mining equipment when it gets too close to workers.
Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners died and 220 were injured nationwide when they became crushed, pinned or struck by continuous mining machines underground.
On the federal level, two separate U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) rules to require proximity detection systems remain stalled, one at MSHA and the other at the White House.
In June 2008, the state’s Mine Safety Technology Task Force planned to have a draft regulation ready by January 2009 so it could become effective by June 2009, according to meeting minutes and other records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Gazette-Mail.
“The task force would like to come up with a regulation before federal requirements are proposed on proximity devices,” said the minutes, from a June 18-19 meeting in Charleston, WV.
Three months later, in a Sept. 7, 2008, memo, four top state mine inspectors recommended specific language that would have given mine operators a year to install proximity detection systems.
“It is our belief that the use of a device, such as the proximity warning system, will be necessary if we are to ever eliminate injuries of this type,” the memo said.
While questions remained about such equipment, the memo said, a legal mandate would push industry and academia to improve the technology to respond to a new market.
The issue came up again in August when the mine safety board’s members heard a report on the Feb. 19 death of John Myles at Metinvest’s Affinity Mine in Raleigh County. Myles, 44, of Hilltop, was hit by a mining “scoop” vehicle as he worked shoveling coal debris away from the mine walls at the underground operation.
In a previous report, MSHA had concluded one cause of the accident was that the scoop “was allowed to operate with supplies and other extraneous materials positioned on top of the machine,” which “caused limited visibility” for the miner operating the vehicle.
State investigators disagreed, saying that the scoop’s batteries alone were so tall that they blocked the driver's view, regardless of whether supplies were piled on top of it.
Both MSHA and the state took steps that now require the company to use either proximity detection devices or cameras to avoid future such accidents.
McKennis Browning, an inspector at large for the state mine safety office, told board members that proximity detection systems or cameras might have prevented Myles being killed. A requirement for workers to wear highly visible strobe lights in underground mines might also have helped, Browning told the board.
But Browning said that, without a rule on those issues, state inspectors are only able to step in and require such equipment as a mine operator’s response to a death or serious injury.