Delivering a keynote address at the 31st Biennial International Conference of Safety in Mines Research Institutes in Brisbane yesterday, Kohler outlined the organisation’s targeted approach and the introduction of performance measures against which NIOSH was now evaluated by key stakeholders.
“The industry and its workers look to NIOSH to conduct research and prevention activities that will lead to improved health and safety conditions throughout the minerals industry,” Kohler said.
One challenge, and not unique to NIOSH, is how to convert research to practice: how you move solutions from the lab to the mine where they will make a difference. Performance measures, established in the past year, were helpful in keeping researchers focused on ensuring projects led to outcomes, Kohler said.
But, as Kohler noted, while the goal was to improve mining health and safety by eliminating harmful exposures, “the breadth of the problem to be solved, ranging from respiratory hazards to explosion hazards, is staggering”
Developing priority areas for research is based on three factors: surveillance data, customer input and loss control.
The coal mining industry has a fatality rate seven times in excess of the national US average, with the most recent data indicating primary causes for 90% of fatalities in underground mines to be: fall of ground, powered haulage, explosions, machinery and electrical.
The top three illnesses facing mine workers are repetitive trauma (musculo-skeletal problems), hearing loss and lung diseases. These account for over 85% of newly reported cases but Kohler added he was not sure how well illnesses were reported because they often only became statistics when claim forms were completed.
Kohler said in 1999 (the most recent year for which data is available), 1003 people died from coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. Prevention of respiratory diseases is the primary focus of NIOSH’s mining safety and health research program and receives the bulk of spend.
Looking to the future, Kohler said the ageing workforce would present a serious problem five years from now and the challenge was to invest today in addressing this future issue.
Kohler also talked about low-probability but high-impact events such as explosions; as part of this analysis, sentinel events were tracked.
“All of the indicators point to increasing risk of disaster from explosions, fires and inundations. In large part this is due to the worsening conditions as mines progress into gassier deposits, go deeper, and work under generally more adverse geologic conditions,” he said.
Kohler pointed to the 2001 explosion at Jim Walter Resources No. 5 mine in which 13 were killed, the 2000 explosion at the Willow Creek mine (2 fatalities) and the 2003 explosion at McElroy mine.
“These events are stark reminders that coal mine explosion incidents still take an unacceptable human toll and clearly demonstrate that not all of the problems that can result in coal mine explosions have been solved,” he said.
Several changing issues in the industry also suggest the risk of explosions may increase. These include ongoing high levels of frictional ignitions (62 per year over the last five years); the impending loss of experienced mining professionals; the depletion of ‘easy-to-mine’ reserves and the resultant movement into difficult, deeper reserves with increased methane; technological and operational changes such as higher production rates and longer and wider longwall panels that compound methane issues; and the persistence of various potential ignition sources.
Cutting and welding, currently activities allowed in underground coal mines in the US (though not in Australia), are also emerging as dangerous, high-risk activities. NIOSH is investing effort in research and training in these areas.
“A broad-based research program is being conducted and includes laboratory and full-scale mine explosion studies, measurement and monitoring studies for ventilation systems, seal design, spontaneous combustion studies, and training and education of mine rescue personnel,” he said in conclusion.
The conference was organised by Queensland government testing station Simtars.