Proximity detection's foothold must expand: MSHA

TWO deaths last year involved remote-controlled continuous miners, and a total of 31 workers have lost their lives over the past 25 years by the same means. US Mine Safety and Health Administration Technical Support director Mark Skiles spoke to Coal USA about the problem and pointed out that technology can keep another miner from meeting the same fate.
Proximity detection's foothold must expand: MSHA Proximity detection's foothold must expand: MSHA Proximity detection's foothold must expand: MSHA Proximity detection's foothold must expand: MSHA Proximity detection's foothold must expand: MSHA

A remote CM operator wearing the proximity detection unit. Courtesy MSHA

Donna Schmidt

Published in the December 2008 Coal USA Magazine

The advent of remote-controlled systems has made the work of continuous miner operators everywhere easier, as these allow a quick retreat from hazards and keep individuals away from the face. However, remote users are exposed to a new danger: the possibility of being trapped between the machine and the rib.

Skiles said the rash of deaths, particularly the most recent, “really upsets me”. He has worked closely with two industry suppliers – Nautilus International and Geosteering Mining Services – to approve the technology developed for proximity detection underground.

Both systems were tested and had their features polished at Massey Energy and Consol Energy operations “for some length of time” before being ready for their approvals, he noted.

Once the federal agency felt the systems had met the proper criteria, both were given the green light for permissibility and commercial availability in 2006.

The testing was more than long enough to be proven, Skiles said, and to work out any obstacles in a real underground setting.

However, many operations still do not use the technology. Some lack understanding of the systems while others believe they are educated on proximity detection’s advantages but still feel issues exist.

The most efficient solution to both issues, he noted, is true awareness of the technology. A rulemaking that would require all mines to install the systems on their CMs, he added, would also save lives.

“The MINER Act was a matter of priority, and proximity protection got pushed to the back burner,” Skiles said of the temporary readjustment MSHA had to make to its regulatory plans following the act’s development and passage in 2006. The industry has had a full plate complying with the requirements of the MINER Act and the advancement of the technology has consequently suffered.

The agency launched an awareness campaign on safety and proximity detection in 2004 that was met with positive results, he said – just one fatality was marked between then and the beginning of 2008 that the technology could have helped prevent. However, in today’s more highly regulated mining environment, the agency cannot stop at mass mailings and oral presentations.

“It’s going to take a rule before we eliminate this,” he said. The gravity and scope of the issue, he added, is larger than it appears as remote technology for other equipment becomes reality.

“There are some parts of the [MINER] Act that won’t save nearly as many lives as proximity protection,” Skiles said.

He pointed out that a recent study revealed 20% of fatal accidents could be eliminated by using the technology on CMs and many other machines including scoops and shuttlecars.

Contrary to some operators’ feelings that the systems are not ready for commercial use and create more issues in downtime than they’re worth, he said the effort to perfect the detectors is not “haphazard”. The technology was actually developed as a result of a 2002 fatality through the agency’s review of the scene and how future incidents could be avoided.

Once installed, it would not be a tall order for MSHA and the system suppliers to educate mines on how to care for them and troubleshoot any issues.

In addition, a rule could be structured so that mines can keep running and log uptime while waiting for a repair to be made to the system. There is no substitute, however, for the vital communication that would alert crews to the issue in the meantime, so operations would have to assume some level of responsibility.

So, for the coming year, Skiles said the topic is high on his agenda to promote to mines and also to push for regulatory requirements. As long as there are still mines out there without the technology installed, “we are going to have accidents”, he said.