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Improvements in Mine Rescue Readiness

Posted on: January 05, 2017

Assistant Secretary Joseph A. Main

Today, at the Pittsburgh Safety & Health Technology Center, we held a demonstration of MSHA’s mine emergency equipment and tools that are improving our mine emergency preparedness should an accident occur.  Since 2010 MSHA has vastly upgraded and modernized its aging fleet of vehicles, mine gas analysis and other mine rescue equipment needed for emergencies.

We have built new state-of-the-art mobile command centers and developed groundbreaking communications –including mobile communications - tracking, atmospheric monitoring and mapping systems, linking for the first time mine rescue teams underground with the surface command center to exchange information in real-time and making mine rescue quicker and safer.

MSHA is also engaged in another ground-breaking development and has developed in-house state of the art seismic equipment, designed to detect miners hundreds of feet underground.  And we are working to develop robotic tools and equipment to use when it is not safe or possible to send in mine rescue teams.

We have made a number of other improvements including the creation of a fully equipped mine emergency operations (MEO) station in Madisonville, KY to provide mine coverage in the Mid-West.  The station joins our other MEO stations in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Beckley, West Virginia; Denver, Colorado; and Price, Utah.

In 2013, the Holmes Mine Safety Association created the Holmes Mine Rescue Association (HMRA) so we could have a national organization to provide support and guidance for mine rescue.  The entire mine rescue community is participating in HMRA.  We have also upgraded training requirements for mine rescue teams to include more hands on training.

And we overhauled our national mine rescue competitions in both Coal and Nonmetal to include stakeholder participation and make them a meaningful training ground for mine rescue teams.

Individuals who volunteer to participate on mine rescue teams are our unsung heroes.  They take time away from their families, and placing themselves at risk, they undertake some of the most dangerous and difficult mine emergency work in our country as they travel into the bowels of the earth searching for missing miners.  So in 2013, we established “Mine Rescue Day” to occur on October 30th of every year to honor those brave mine rescuers.

We have been working with mining companies, state agencies and mine rescue teams across the country to link them with our systems as they modernize as well, and also train up the mine rescue community on the new communications, tracking, mapping and atmospheric monitoring systems so they will be ready to use them should an emergency occur.

We have conducted a number of joint exercises with state agencies, mining companies and mine rescue teams, both in Coal and Metal and Nonmetal, such as in southwest Pennsylvania at the Consol Energy, Harvey and Bailey mines.  A great deal of gratitude goes out to all of them for their contributions and support to get us where we are today.

Upon my arrival at MSHA in 2009 we launched a number of initiatives, including the “End Black Lung - Act Now” campaign to end the black lung disease, “Rules to Live By” initiative to prevent mining deaths that frequently occur, reforming “Worker Voice” protections to give miners a better voice on their own safety and health, improving industry compliance and stakeholder outreach and implementing strategic regulations -- to achieve better mine safety and health results to protect miners.

Also at the top of my list was overhauling MSHA and industry readiness for mine emergency response.  I and many others knew from first-hand experience in mine rescue following a number of mine fires, explosions and disasters that more needed to be done.

After the Wilberg mine fire in Utah, it took a year to find all 27 victims. Following the Jim Walter Resource #5 mine explosion in Alabama that claimed 13 lives, it took 6 weeks to recover the victims.  While miners survived after the Sago, West Virginia mine explosion, mine rescuers could save only one.  And at Utah Crandall Canyon’s ground failure, 3 rescuers died attempting to find 6 missing miners who also died.

Those disasters, as well as explosions here in Pennsylvania at the Homer City and Greenwich mines, taught me that we had shortcomings that delayed rescue efforts and placed our rescue teams too much at risk. 

In November 2009, I tasked our MSHA Technical Support staff and mine MEO personnel with preparing a report on shortcomings and gaps in mine emergency response within MSHA, the mining industry and mine rescue teams; and to identify improvements needed. In January 2010, the MSHA Technical Support and Mine Emergency response personnel delivered a report validating that our equipment and vehicles were out of date and lacking at some of our MEO sites and that new and better communications and command center tools were needed to make mine rescue quicker and safer.

The report charted our roadmap forward as we involved the mine industry in our discussions to address the gaps identified.

The first of many stakeholder meetings was held at the National Mine Academy in Beckley, West Virginia on May 11, 2010 and attended by MSHA, industry, state agencies, mine rescue personnel and.  Since then, working together we have made significant progress on mine emergency response preparedness and you will see the results of some of that here today.

We still have much more work to do. We are currently working with NIOSH to develop improved robotics capability and we are thankful for the mine emergency robotic devices they have provided us from their research work.  And we are working to develop helmet video cameras mine rescuers can wear  to relay the video back to the command center, as well as voice communication in mine rescue apparatuses.

In addition, we are working to develop underground communication systems to incorporate wireless gas detection capabilities and provide new seismic devices at each MEO site.

The news for the last couple of years shows that we have been making progress on mine safety.  Since 2010, and after launching many reforms, we have seen injury rates, mining deaths and fatal rates drop to historic lows.  And the latest news this week further confirms we are making mines safer places to work - in 2016, we had the lowest number of deaths in mining history with 25. 

While we are all thankful that we are moving mine safety in the right direction, I believe we all agree that more needs to be done to prevent these deaths – and as important – we cannot be lulled into the false belief that mine emergencies are a thing of the past. 

While we have created and traveled a new roadmap to protect our nation’s miners, we must always be prepared for a mine emergency we all hope never happens.

Thank you all for what you do to keep our mines safe so miners can go home each shift free of injury or illness.  And thank you for your support in keeping our mine emergency response at the ready to rescue any miner that may be in need!