Proximity detection laws: trouble ahead

Jackson Kelly attorney Jason Webb outlines some major concerns with MSHA’s proposed rule regarding proximity detection systems for US underground mines.
Proximity detection laws: trouble ahead Proximity detection laws: trouble ahead Proximity detection laws: trouble ahead Proximity detection laws: trouble ahead Proximity detection laws: trouble ahead

Jackson Kelly's Jason Webb.

Staff Reporter

As any mine operator could tell you, the US Mine Safety and Health Administration is keeping busy these days.

A proposed rule issued on August 31, 2011, requiring the use of proximity detection systems on underground continuous mining machines can be added to the litany of new rules from assistant secretary Joe Main that have been finalized or are in the works (76 Fed. Reg. 54163).

The proposed rule relating to proximity detection systems applies to all underground continuous mining machines except full-face continuous mining machines.

These systems send warning signals and stop machine movement when the programmed areas, also known as the red zone, are breached and miners are put at risk.

As proposed, the rule requires the mining machine to alarm when within 5ft of miners and shut down within 3ft. While mining is occurring, the rule is more flexible and provides that the machine must shut down before contacting the machine’s operator.

Red zone injuries have accounted for a large number of fatal and non-fatal injuries over the past two decades.

The majority of these have occurred to operators using a handheld remote control.

They typically result from faulty mining practices in which machine operators place themselves in harm’s way.

Most of these events have arisen as a consequence of miners being pinned against the rib by their own machine while it is trammed or moved.

Fortunately, significant progress has been made in recent years to reduce red zone injuries. Following a number of fatal accidents in the early 2000s, mine owners partnered with MSHA in an effort to focus on reducing these preventable injuries.

The resulting education and training campaigns, emphasizing the need to stay out of the red zone, have been highly successful.

In the 14 years before the campaign, nearly two red zone fatalities occurred on average annually; over the last six years, however, that number has dropped precipitously – eliminating nearly two-thirds of such events.

Given the success of these education and training campaigns and its proven effect in eliminating such events, there are many who do not believe the new rule is warranted.

While a divide may exist on whether the new rule itself is necessary, a number of concerns with the proposed rule have been voiced that are likely to spur wide agreement among mine operators.

The most glaring concern with the proposed rule is the implementation period.

The proposal requires an MSHA-approved proximity detection system to be installed on existing machines within 18 months of the final rule while all new machines will have only three months to comply.

It is clear that 18 months will not be enough time.

MSHA estimates there are about 1150 place changing continuous mining machines in the nation that will need to be fitted with proximity systems in the 18 months following the final rule’s promulgation.

Yet there is very little information available on how long a single installation would take.

MSHA believes “that a proximity detection system can be installed and calibrated on a remote controlled continuous mining machine in one midnight shift”, per 76 FR 54167.

There is, however, nothing to confirm this crucial information or indicate whether all three systems have similar installation and calibration times.

One manufacturer of an approved system has advised clients its plant/shop capabilities permit 120 new continuous miners and 120 rebuilds per year; it is assumed that the other two manufacturers will not exceed this quantity. Some mines will also use local shops to perform the rebuild.

When the installation occurs while a rebuild is undertaken, the shop may be occupied for more than a week on a single continuous mining machine.

As one operator indicated, industry-wide compliance within the 18-month timeframe is an “impossibility”

Unfortunately, MSHA appears to have failed to consider other issues that will impact the 18-month period. While three systems have been approved, it appears that MSHA is counting on significant demand for each manufacturer’s product.

If one system proves more popular, it is not clear that any one manufacturer will be able to satisfy the increased demand in a timely way. Shortages appear inevitable.

Before being deployed, MSHA approval of modified mining machines is necessary.

MSHA assumes that it will be able to keep up with the influx of Part 18 permissibility applications to add proximity detection systems to continuous mining machines, as well as for new proximity detection systems and new mining machines.

But without more time, operators rightly are concerned that long delays are likely.

There are going to be kinks to work out, and glitches are unavoidable. Unfortunately, the rule MSHA has proposed will put the onus on operators to make things work.

Jason Webb is an associate in Jackson Kelly’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, office practicing with the Occupational Safety and Health Practice Group.

Published in the December 2011 Coal USA Magazine