Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: (703) 235-1452
November 24, 1995
To Protect Miners, Federal Inspectors Worked Through Furlough
Most Federal mine inspectors stayed on the job during last week's furlough of Federal employees, and it's fortunate that they did, according to Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. McAteer heads the U.S. Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
"While we had to postpone some of MSHA's normal activities, we kept front-line mine inspectors on the job to conduct special focus inspections and called in certain technical people to deal with emergencies," McAteer said. "During those furlough days, our mine inspectors found several imminent danger situations where serious accidents could have occurred had not the hazard been recognized and promptly corrected."
During the November 14-19 furlough, Federal coal mine inspectors conducted special focus inspections centering on explosion prevention, McAteer said. A disastrous coal mine explosion can happen at any time if proper mine ventilation is neglected and an ignition source is present. Due to dry winter air, winter is an especially high-hazard period for mine explosions. In addition, a drop in barometric pressure preceding a winter storm can cause explosive methane gas to migrate from worked-out areas to active mine workings.
Among other incidents during the furlough period:
- --On November 14, an MSHA inspector in California discovered
a quarry wall in danger of collapsing, with miners working
below it. The dangerous area of the sand quarry was
ordered closed until the condition was corrected.
--On November 14 and 15, Federal mine inspectors found elevated levels of potentially explosive methane gas at an underground coal mine in West Virginia. Miners working in the affected area were evacuated until the mine operator could adjust the ventilation, dispersing the methane. The incident occurred in a part of the mine where significant amounts of methane had rarely been detected before. Regular scheduled checks by mining company personnel had failed to detect the danger until Federal inspectors discovered it.
--On November 16, at an underground coal mine in Colorado, Federal mine inspectors found accumulations of methane near a sealed area. At the same time, barometric pressure was dropping. The 15 miners working in the affected area were evacuated from the mine until ventilation adjustments were completed, correcting the hazard.
--On November 17, the operator of an underground coal mine in Wyoming notified MSHA of a high methane level, high carbon monoxide level, and visible smoke. Miners were evacuated; MSHA personnel set up equipment for sophisticated gas tests to help assess the situation. Tests indicated that spontaneous combustion had developed in a mined-out, sealed area of the mine. Seals were reinforced and nitrogen pumped in to deprive the fire of oxygen. Currently, miners are back at work while MSHA continues monitoring to make sure the problem is under control.
--Also on November 17, the operator of an underground coal mine in Alabama notified MSHA of increased carbon monoxide detected in the mine atmosphere. (Even a slight increase in this gas can warn of spontaneous combustion heating in a mined-out, inaccessible area of a mine.) The company had safely evacuated the mine, which also releases large volumes of methane. MSHA set up gas analysis equipment and has monitored the situation closely ever since. As indications of a possible fire increased, mining also was suspended at adjacent interconnecting mine. The two mines employ more than 900 miners.
--Follow-up continued on a hazard complaint received shortly before the furlough concerning a Texas aggregate operation. Inspection revealed serious safety violations including mine equipment with bad brakes, no brakes, defective steering, and severe hydraulic leaks as well as other safety problems at the 60-employee operation. The mine operator and a contractor employed by the operator were required to correct the hazards.
"During the furlough, inspectors cited other hazardous situations and continued critical activities like accident investigations," said McAteer.
"Mining is much safer today than in the past, but it remains a high-hazard industry where the work environment is constantly changing and dangers can develop rapidly. Inspections and other activities by Federal mine inspectors make a difference every day," McAteer said.
While most mine inspectors remained on the job, McAteer noted that the furlough hampered or delayed other important MSHA business such as mining plan approvals, meetings between MSHA and company officials, equipment safety tests for product certification, penalty assessments, criminal investigations, investigations of certain complaints, and safety training sessions.
"Had the furlough continued much longer, we could have seen some serious backlogs and in time, a noticeable decline in our effectiveness overall," McAteer said. "As it is, we have some catching-up to do. While inspections are fundamental, other MSHA responsibilities mesh with inspections in an overall system that protects miners' safety and health."