Centre chief John Faini from MSHA's Approval Certification Center in Triadelphia outlined many changes that have been or will soon be made to the office's research and testing arsenal, including its own infrastructure.
"We have taken advantage of information technology, computer networks and the internet to speed our processes and open up our operations to the mining industry," he noted in an interview with International Longwall News.
"Information on the work we do is now instantly available to our clients."
The instant transfer of data and vital information by the agency's investigators, to both MSHA and outside clients, is now possible.
Anyone interested in examining the collection of information made available on its website can do so without the need for registration or identification, Faini said. He added the agency encourages public viewing of posted reports, images and other information.
MSHA has also established an Innovative Products section on its site where members of the industry can review the latest product developments. The area has received significant traffic and is constantly updated, Faini said.
The A&CC is also making changes to other testing areas. First, it has added additional precision and repeatability to its protocols for gas detection with a paramagnetic oxygen analyser and an updated non-dispersive infra-red methane analyser.
Also, it has reviewed the nation's first permissible electronic diesel engine system for installation in a diesel machine.
"Modern diesel engines utilise electronic controls for fuel injection and fuel injection timing which replaces mechanical fuel injection systems," Faini said.
"The electronic engine controls add a complexity in our technical evaluation to ensure that these electronic fuel system components are either intrinsically safe or enclosed in explosion proof enclosures."
Utilising its diesel lab, the A&CC examines electronic engines with advanced catalytic converter formulations and diesel particulate matter exhaust filters to obtain the cleanest exhaust emissions output from the diesel engine, thereby decreasing exposure levels for both coal miners and metal/nonmetal workers.
The agency and its approval centre are still focusing much attention on the communications and tracking sector, an area that is receiving much discussion internationally from regulators as well as operators since the establishment of the MINER Act.
"First and foremost, we will be continuing to prioritise our communications and tracking approvals. We are actively working with NIOSH and other mining industry stakeholders to foster the development of truly wireless communications underground," said Faini.
Since publishing a Request for Information, or RFI, for available technology in January 2006, the agency has received more than 159 potential design suggestions. After reviewing submissions, it selected several for further evaluation to determine potential in several areas.
The technologies currently under evaluation include:
Very low frequency (VLF), through-the-earth (TTE) communications;
Medium frequency radios;
Wireless mesh network systems;
Ultra-wide band radio;
Radio frequency identification (RFID) tracking; and
Personal Emergency Devices (PEDs).
To date, performance through field testing has been examined on 26 communications and/or tracking devices, and the agency has made results publicly available on its website.
Since Sago, 31 new or modified communications and tracking products have been approved for use.
"We also published the currently approved communication and tracking systems with the advantages and disadvantages of each technology regarding their potential mine emergency use," Faini noted.
He also said that more applications for technology falling under the communications/tracking umbrella are coming in.
"We are optimistic that truly wireless communications technology will be available by June 2009, per the MINER Act," he said.
Seal of approval
Faini said the MSHA staff look at many criteria to determine if a product should be approved or certified, and those factors depend on the technology being evaluated.
For example, for something to be intrinsically safe, the agency will test to see if there is enough energy in the circuit to cause a spark, or heat, which could lead to an explosion. For diesel reviews, it will look at a product's ability to contain an explosion as well as emissions and other health concerns.
When complete machines are under the microscope, MSHA will do a comprehensive check that includes braking systems, protective wiring and fire suppression systems; and many materials seeking approval will undergo burn tests to ensure they do not propagate a flame.
"Generally an approval is for a machine or piece of equipment that performs a function, like a shuttle car that hauls coal. A certification is typically for a component of a larger machine, [such as] for a headlight on the shuttle car," he said, adding that the processes for either can take any length of time depending on the responsiveness of the manufacturer, the agency's current workload and other factors.
The agency is also working hard to bring its focus even more towards getting newer technology products underground more quickly to improve miners' safety.
It has developed a new philosophy - "More, Better, Sooner for the Miners" - to do that through the reduction of non-value added administrative elements from their approval processes. Some of their efforts towards the initiative have been immediate while others will take some time, Faini noted.
MSHA has also developed a database where customers can go to see their application's status within the approval and certification timeline. By going to the MSHA home page, then "Technical Assistance Areas", then "A&CC Home Page" and then "Application Status Search", individuals can learn the latest information on their submissions.
Customers need to know the MSHA code number for their company, but if not known the Information Processing Service Office at 304-547-2090 can assist. Only submissions by the requestor's company can be viewed; all others are kept private.
"Once the company has determined the investigator working on their job, they will be able to contact the investigator with any further questions," Faini added.
Refuge chambers are another area of evaluation which has presented many questions from the community and which the agency will keep reviewing.
"We are and will continue to work with industry stakeholders to evaluate these systems and answer the technology questions," Faini said.
"We have developed a simulated mine refuge chamber and are constructing a new building to bring in other manufacturers' chambers."
MSHA is looking at a number of issues with regard to refuge chambers:
Effective and consistent purging of contaminated safe haven atmosphere volumes;
Uniform oxygen dispersion;
CO2 adsorption efficiencies;
Critical methods to be deployed for atmosphere monitoring;
Airlock design effectiveness concepts;
Pressurised cylinders placement and deployment correctness;
Specialised devices needs; and
The development of hard data for sound, practical and readily available training procedures for use by miners.
Going forward, Faini said the A&CC is looking at several areas of focus, especially those relating to sections of the MINER Act. It will continue to prioritise communications and tracking approvals while following its new philosophy - "More, Better, Sooner for the Miners" - to improve approval turnaround times.
"We will never cut corners on our safety testing, but we will eliminate unnecessary administrative tasks that cause delay in issuing product approvals," Faini said.
"We are beginning to make good strides in this area, having significantly increased approval production and reduced average turnaround times since 2006.
"Our dedicated employees are living this philosophy by providing newer technology product approvals safely and efficiently for the benefit of our nation's miners."
To view MSHA's Innovative Products section, visit http://www.msha.gov/Accident_Prevention/innovativeproducts/innovativeproducts.asp.
For more information on Faini and MSHA's Approvals and Certifications Center, check out the December issue of American Longwall Magazine.