Sunday, January 29, 2006

Bush's MSHA Killed Requirement For Mine Communication Devices

Pop quiz: What's the mantra of this administration when it comes to workplace safety?

I think this quote from Senator Mike Enzi, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, pretty much sums it up:
Cooperation, not confrontation is essential in making our workplaces safer. The notion that employers care little about worker safety, or are prepared to sacrifice worker health in the pursuit of profit is a dangerous myth.
Well, if the lessons of Sago and Alma indicate anything, the real danger (to workers) lies in believing the myth that it's a myth "that some employers care little about worker safety, or are prepared to sacrifice worker health in the pursuit of profit."

First, the Bush administration withdraws a regulation that would have revised MSHA's 15-year old mine rescue regulation, kills a regulation that would have helped prevent conveyor belt fires, changes mine ventilation rules that experts say will allow fires to spread more rapidly through the mine, cutting off miners' fresh air -- and now this from today's Charleston Gazette:
Just two years ago, the Bush administration rejected a proposal to give coal miners text-messaging devices that could warn them of underground fires and explosions.

If the Sago Mine had had these devices, 13 miners trapped underground could have been told it was safe for them to just walk out after a Jan. 2 explosion.

If workers at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine three weeks later had had text-messaging devices, they could have been warned sooner of a dangerous fire that killed two workers.

MSHA already could have acted to accept text-messaging proposals that labor and industry officials made after a major mine disaster in Alabama.

The nation’s 42,000 underground coal miners already could have communication devices to help them escape potentially deadly mine accidents, according to a review of public records and interviews with mine safety experts.

U.S. coal companies have known about the devices — called Personal Emergency Devices, or PEDs — since at least the late 1980s. But without an industry-wide mandate, few operators have installed the systems in their mines. Only 19 of about 800 underground U.S. mines use PEDs, according to MSHA records.
These devices, manufactured by an Australian firm, Mine Site Technologies, use ultra-low frequency electromagnetic fields to send text messages from the surface to the fields -- warning miners to evacuate and best evacuations routes, for example.

The devices have been used for almost 20 years in Australia. Following the September 2001, explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama that killed 13 miners, the United Minworkers recommended that MSHA require the devices. In that incident, four miners were injured by an initial explosion, but the others were killed attempting to rescue the injured miners, not knowing about the explosion or the dangers of another explosion.

The devices were used successfully in the US in a 1998 fire at the Willow Creek Mine in Carbon County, Utah, where the entire workforce of mine was successfully evacuated from a serious mine fire.

When MSHA decided to upgrade its Mine Emergency Actions rule in response to the Jim Walters disaster, the United Mineworkers union, Mine Site Technologies, and American companies that had successfully used the devices urged MSHA to require PED's. But the new rule issued in September 2003, simply established a single point of contact for miners underground to look to for guidance in the event of a mine emergency failed to require the devices. The excuse?“
MSHA has not made the PED system a requirement of the final rule,” the agency said in a Federal Register notice. MSHA believes that the PED system is generally effective and encourages its use. However, since technology is constantly changing, newer systems that may be as, or more, effective than the PED may be developed.”
Well, I'm sure the 14 dead miners who might have made it out alive with PEDs appreciate the fact that MSHA "encouraged" their use.

MSHA and OSHA are hot on the idea of promoting workplace safety and health by something called "the national dialog on safety and health," encouraging employers to do the right thing. Well, if this situation is any indication, the national dialog is more like a failure to comunicate. It would have cost $100,000 to equip the Sago Mine with PEDs. Is it possible that Sago's owner, the International Coal Group, is one of Senator Enzi's mythical companies that is actually "prepared to sacrifice worker health in the pursuit of profit?"

Oh, and finally, in case you're worried about how we're going to compete with China with all these new regulations people are talking about, check this headline out:

More mine disaster stories here.