There has been a lot of controversy lately over the self-contained self-rescuers that coal miners rely on to escape from mines. Randal McCloy, the only Sago miner to survive, reported that several of the self-rescuers weren't working. NIOSH, however, reported that they were working. There were also reports that the self-rescuers weren't working in Kentucky Darby mine where five miners died recently.
So what's the story here? According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the problem may be that miners have never been trained to use the devices properly. They learn how to put the masks on, but never actually breathe through it -- with potentially fatal consequences.
Why aren't miners given the opportunity to breathe through the self rescuers when they're being trained?
And why is it important?
With self-contained self-rescuers costing $650 apiece, it's simply too expensive to expend one for each miner every year during the retraining.
As a result, miners typically do not experience what it's like to breathe on an SCSR -- until they find themselves in an underground emergency, surrounded by smoke and gas, their life on the line.
"They can be difficult in the conditions that people are expected to put them on, having to put them on so rapidly. And it's an uncomfortable piece of equipment to maneuver, particularly if the mine is filling with smoke," said Jack Spadaro, former head of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, W.Va.
"You should be able to use it at least once for it to be effective training."
One thing first-time users notice is the resistance the device puts up to normal breathing, he said.And then we come to an all-to-familiar story in this administration.
"When you're sitting at your desk, there's no resistance. But with certain types of SCSRs, when they start getting near expiration, they become very hard to breathe through. You have to sort of suck the air out of that unit. There's still plenty of air but it becomes harder to breathe."
Had federal safety standards proposed in 1999 been adopted, though, coal miners' training in the use of emergency oxygen packs would be markedly different.The 1999 proposal also described the need for frequent training:
A draft copy of a standard proposed by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in 1999, obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, calls for "expectations training" -- teaching miners not only how to don an SCSR, but what it will feel like to breathe once it's on.
"When a miner does not know what to expect, the miner may believe that the SCSR device is not functioning, or the oxygen supply has been depleted," the proposed rule states. "This may result in the miner removing the mouthpiece in a hazardous atmosphere which could result in death."
That proposed rule was withdrawn in September 2001, following an administration change at the agency.
The 1999 proposal also called for storing caches of oxygen inside the mine, another part of MSHA's emergency temporary standard implemented this year after 12 miners died at Sago, and limiting the service life of SCSRs to five years.
It also cites a study that found that, three months after receiving training, 90 percent of the 77 miners tested on their proficiency at donning the packs "performed so poorly that they were regarded as having almost completely forgotten how to put on the device."The United Mineworkers sued the federal government yesterday to require testing of the devices and that miners be trained in emergency-simulated situations.
“There have been too many reports of faulty SCSRs in the mine tragedies we’ve experienced this year to ignore,” UMWA International President Cecil E.Roberts said. “In fact, miners have experienced problems with these units for years. We’ve called in the past for MSHA to inspect these units, to little result. So, we’ve been forced to take this extra step to get these units tested.
“We frankly wish we didn’t have to go to court to get MSHA to do this,” Roberts said. “MSHA is supposed to be the federal watchdog for mine safety, and after all the reports of failed SCSRs in emergency situations, you would think MSHA would do this on its own. Indeed, I have asked the agency, in writing, to do so.
“MSHA’s response has been to call for more study, more ‘recommendations’ for coal companies to perhaps consider when it comes to SCSRs,” Roberts said. “We are way past the ‘study’ and ‘recommendation’ stages now. Coal miners are dying. We must find out why this is happening, and find out now. And then we must make the companies implement needed changes–right now.”
“The kind of training the UMWA is calling for in this suit will give miners confidence that they know what to expect if they have to activate their SCSRs in a real emergency,” Roberts said. “They must have a better understanding of what it is like to put these units on in the dark, in the smoke, in the anxious moments that follow after an explosion or fire underground.”