Friday, April 16, 2010

Underground Mining Must Meet Safety Levels of Other Dangerous Industries

Coal Mountain--another heartbreaking coal mine accident. I have heard those sad reports throughout my childhood to the present. They never seem to end. They are mostly related to methane explosions or fires in one form or another.

One of the arguments often cited to excuse the deaths in coal mining accidents is that the industry is “inherently dangerous”. This implies that it is futile to expect a fatality free safety record.

Extracting coal from a deposit thousands of feet underground from a matrix that outgases explosive methane as the coal is accessed is indeed dangerous. But why have many other industries that are also engaged in very dangerous manufacturing, such as chemicals, petroleum, nuclear, and space been able to bring their fatality record under much better control? They have all found the technology and operational expertise to mitigate the danger. Why is the underground coal industry unable to design and operate extraction systems that bring the accident fatalities very close to zero as these other industries have done?

This answer should come from the National Mining Association. Its web site proudly claims the following:

The National Mining Association (NMA) is the voice of the American mining industry in Washington, D.C. NMA is the only national trade organization that represents the interests of mining before Congress, the Administration, federal agencies, the judiciary and the media.
In March of 2006 NMA established the independent Mine Safety and Training Commission to develop a status report on the industry safety practices and make recommendations for the future. In December of 2006 the following report of 193 pages was issued:

Improving Mine Safety Technology and Training: Establishing US Global Leadership

As it happens I have spent a large portion of my professional career as a chemical engineer in development, design, startups and operations in the petro-chemical industry. The chemical plants, along with the other dangerous industries previously mentioned, are engineered with a goal of zero accidents. Although fatalities do rarely occur, each one triggers immediate corrections to prevent a repeat occurrence.

With the recent Coal Mountain tragedy as motivation I reviewed the commission report. It is filled with industry safety practice information and recommendations that were valuable in comparing underground mining with my chemical industry experience. It answers my question by showing the differences in levels of prevention between the two industries.

The report is clearly written and is an apparently thorough report on the practices of the industry. It was contributed to and reviewed by academics and professionals with deep experience in mine safety operations. They obviously are sincerely concerned about the continued fatalities. (I recommend that you browse the report to gain some familiarity with the industry).

Strangely, however, the report specifically states that although these contributors agreed with the recommendations they were not asked for an endorsement of the report. (An obvious question is why this commission and assessment was not established until 2006 instead of 50-75 years earlier).

Five recommendations were listed in the commission transmittal letter to the NMA. .

1. Of primary importance is a call for a new paradigm for mine safety that focuses on systematic and comprehensive risk management for all life-safety issues.
That this would be a “new” paradigm is surprising. It is an admission that much of the industry has not followed the example of the other dangerous industries in putting life protection as an unquestioned priority in design and operation. The report states that many mines do not have risk assessment and management skills and must be educated. Good risk assessment is critical in preventing fatal accidents. This points to the overriding reason for the poor performance. It raises the question of how the industry has been allowed to operate at this level over the years

2. Better technology in communications, mine rescue training, and escape and protection of miners.
A very valid recommendation. Good voice communication between the working areas of the mine and the surface would be extremely useful after an accident. It is technically difficult but not impossible because of the unfavorable signal environment. There is no such standard system in practice. The report discusses hybrid systems which would work in a transition phase while undertaking a major development effort to make this a standard mining capability
3. More realistic and more frequent training
Detailed discussions on and recommendations to upgrade,

4. Broadened and more professional emergency response
Detailed discussions and recommendations on which I am not qualified to comment

5. Development of a culture that promotes safe production at the business core
This is very important. Without a pervading culture of safety in the business core piecemeal regulations will not be adequate. Considering the years of operation. such a culture should already be well developed. It is further evidence that the industry does not give safety the special priority in its business practices that other dangerous industries have. It corroborates well with the earlier stated primary need for more emphasis on risk management.


The underground mining industry has clearly underperformed in the application of technology for prevention of serious accidents. The industry must change its business culture to the point that prevention of serious accidents receives the same priority in operations and capital expenditures that it does in other dangerous industries. This is recognized in the commission report. If accepted it would put the underground mining industry on a path to the standards of other dangerous Industries and provide the basis for a zero fatality goal. Unfortunately the industry is far from this point

For example, the report mentions that the industry should monitor more. This is a tremendous understatement. If designed to the common practice of the chemical industry every area in which an explosive or toxic threat could develop would be protected with carbon monoxide and methane gas detectors. This would be combined with major increases in automatic ventilation capability that would also set an alarm and take other appropriate action if a threat is found to be developing. All of the detectors and ventilation blower’s status along with other sensors and appropriate operating information would be routed to a central control room which would continually monitor the complete status of the entire mine.

Does the United States have the technical and management skills to build a safe environment for underground coal mines? Of course. Will we have the discipline and vision to do so? That remains to be seen.