By Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Miner self-rescue techniques, equipment and training are much better now than they were before the Sago mine disaster in January 2006, but an interdisciplinary committee of the National Academies has begun a yearlong study to determine if they could be better.

The interdisciplinary committee, which held its first three-day meeting in southwestern Pennsylvania last week, will review technological advances that could help miners escape and study how judgement and decision making is affected in a mining explosion or cave-in situation.

“Sago was a turning point in that it highlighted how we’d fallen behind a bit in the technologies available to miners to help them escape,” said Jeffery Kohler, associate director for mining and director of the Office of Mine Safety and Health Research for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, addressing the committee during its Wednesday open session.

Only one of 13 miners trapped for two days in the Sago Mine explosion and collapse in West Virginia survived. The accident triggered state and federal investigations and regulations requiring better training and deployment of safety technologies, including refuge chambers, safety lifeline cables with directional markings and better communications equipment.

“We have training products and technologies, but there is a need to integrate them,” Mr. Kohler said. “What are the skill sets miners should have to improve their chances for escape? What kind of water training is needed? What technologies for communications or breathing apparatus are most effective? We’re still missing that piece, and we will benefit from having that filled in.”

Committee members raised questions about how miner escape is influenced by mine size, company economics, how the use of breathing apparatus affects communication underground, training programs and language used on mine signage.

Dennis O’Dell, United Mine Workers of America administrator for occupational health and safety and a member of the committee, said there’s little consistency in emergency response plans from one mine to another.

Mr. Kohler said that while there’s no indication that current mine safety practices are lacking, NIOSH’s request for a National Academies study is an attempt to be proactive. He said the committee’s review of technologies, training and research — along with public input — will help NIOSH decide on future research areas.

“If something terrible happens, we want miners to be prepared to have the best chance of survival,” Mr. Kohler said. “A lot has been done, but we’re not sure if everything has been done to have them prepared for what they will face.”

The National Academies produced mine safety reports in 1970 and 1981, but mine safety regulators didn’t follow recommendations that included miner rescue chambers, improved breathing devices and additional mine rescue teams.

Following the Wednesday meeting, the 10-member committee was scheduled to tour Consol Energy’s Bailey Mine in Greene County on Thursday and hold another committee meeting Friday in Washington County.

Release of a final report is expected early next year.
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