J.Davitt McAteer, vice president for sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University, leads a panel discussion on safety in bounce-prone underground coal mines at the Third Annual International Mining Health and Safety Symposium July 28 in Salt Lake City. At left is Chuck Semborski from Energy West.
J.Brett Harvey (left), president and CEO of Consol Energy; and J.Davitt McAteer, vice president for sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University, confer during the Third Annual International Mining Health and Safety Symposium July 28 in Salt Lake City.
New ideas and technologies, stricter enforcement of safety measures discussed at third annual International Mining Health And Safety Symposium
Adopting new technologies and strengthening enforcement of regulations are two ways in which mining is becoming safer. Both strategies were among those addressed by officials from government, industry and academia during the third annual International Mining Health and Safety Symposium organized by Wheeling Jesuit University and the Utah Labor Commission, and held in Salt Lake City July 28-29.
The gathering began with a moment of silence in memory of the six miners and three rescuers who lost their lives in the tragedy at Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine last August, and in opening remarks, Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr., asked those assembled to dedicate their efforts to those nine victims.
The accident at Crandall Canyon, and others occurring over the past two years at Sago and Aracoma mines in West Virginia, created a sense of urgency that echoed throughout the conference. "We cannot let these miners die in vain," said symposium organizer J. Davitt McAteer, vice president for sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University and former assistant secretary of labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
"This event is a first step. It involves representatives from all areas that are integral to the process of improving safety. We must be able assure miners that we can protect them because we understand the issues."
The Crandall Canyon accident was attributed to coal bumps or bursts, sudden violent failures of coal and enclosing strata that displace large amounts of material. The symposium included a panel of national experts on the issue, who addressed recent research and developments in controlling stress levels and energy levels, and in using data from seismic monitoring for prediction and prevention; a technology used widely in the oil industry and in South African gold mines.
In addition to seismic monitoring, tunnel boring was proposed as a technology that could go beyond its original application and be used to assist in mine rescue operations.
"The answer is in the rocks," said McAteer. "Once we fully understand the rocks, including coal, then we can mine the coal safely."
Turning toward other initiatives inspired by recent mine tragedies, Consol Energy President/CEO J.Brett Harvey renewed his 2007 call for zero accidents and described the top-down, zero-accidents approach recently started throughout the company.
"Productivity does not trump safety," Harvey stated, recalling the impetus behind the new approach. "The better we are at the technology, the safer the mine will be, but there is a behavioral side as well." He went on to describe Consol's new policy of empowering employees at all levels to cease activity when an unsafe situation is observed or encountered, without fear of repercussions. "They have my support," he said of employees who report unsafe conditions or behaviors, and any repercussions will be investigated. A new zero-accident-based training program is also part of the initiative.
Echoing Harvey's belief in a top-down approach to safety was Richard Stickler, assistant secretary of labor at MSHA. "We at MSHA are serious about improving mine safety and will use every available tool to do that," Stickler said. "Miners deserve nothing less." He went on to discuss changes that MSHA has instituted recently to improve mine safety, including increasing the number of on-site visits during which inspectors create awareness of risks and encourage operators to follow safety procedures.
Other recent MSHA initiatives include beefed-up employee training on new ground-control software, posting on the Web site a list of best practices for deep-cut mining, re-examining ground control plans and establishing an Office of Accountability.
Recent approval of emergency response plans incoal mines has resulted in reduced response times, Stickler reported, and a new emphasis on enforcement has increased the number of safety violation penalties to 140,000 per year.
Panel discussions on advances in communications and tracking technologies by officials from MSHA and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) revealed a number of new technologies undergoing evaluation and some already approved, including MineTracer, a wireless system designed specifically for use in underground mines. Recently approved by MSHA, MineTracer was among a group of technologies on display by vendors at the symposium.
"It's a new age for communications and tracking in mines," said panelist David Chirdon of MSHA. "In two years you won't be able to recognize the environment in terms of what you will be able to do in communications and tracking."
Attending the symposium from start to finish was Wendy Black, whose husband, Dale, was one of three rescuers killed at Crandall Canyon. Speaking of the number of leaders present for the talks, she said, "Wheeling has done an excellent job of getting everyone here. If we can save just one life as a result, it will have made a difference." McAteer summed up the conference with these words, "We will not tolerate accidents. We need to be able to go underground, on the surface, and mine minerals safely, and then bring those miners home."
The International Mining Health and Safety Symposium is coordinated by Wheeling Jesuit University's National Technology Transfer Center and the Utah Labor Commission, and it is sponsored by MSHA, NIOSH, the United Mine Workers of America, The State of Utah, the Utah Labor Commission and the Utah Mining Association.