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State waiting on feds on mine safety devices

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of a state board on Tuesday again delayed any action on a proposal that could end a common type of coal-mining accident in which workers are hurt or killed when they are crushed by a piece of underground equipment.

The state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety discussed the proposal to require all underground mine operators to install "proximity detection" systems to shut off mining equipment when it gets too close to workers.

But board members agreed, without a formal vote, not to act until they find out more about the timeline for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to finalize a nationwide rule on the matter.

Five years ago, a team of state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training urged West Virginia officials to mandate proximity detection equipment, but the state has never acted on the recommendation. The recommendation, revealed in records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, was the subject of a Sunday Gazette-Mail story late last month.

Board members have in recent months reviewed several reports about West Virginia miners killed when they were crushed or pinned by underground mining equipment.

During a meeting in Charleston on Tuesday morning, board member and United Mine Workers representative Carl Egnor referenced one of those deaths and suggested the board should do something.

"I think it's time this board moved on that," Egnor said.

Another UMW representative on the board, Gary Trout, said that "the technology is there" to prevent crushing and pinning deaths.

Chris Hamilton, a West Virginia Coal Association board representative, said that the state should be looking not just at proximity devices, but also at cameras that help improve blind-spot visibility and at strobe lights and fluorescent clothing.

Gary Trout, a UMW representative on the board, said proximity detection systems that automatically turn off mining equipment are better than cameras, because cameras still require miners to take action quickly to avoid accidents.

"It stops it before it gets there," he said. "It takes the human factor out."

Charles Russell, another industry representative on the board, said there's no question that the additional safety provided by proximity devices "far exceeds" that of other technologies that Hamilton mentioned. But, Russell said, the variety of potential solutions available is part of what's holding up regulatory action.

"There are so many things out there, and they all look promising," Russell said. "I think that's what's slowing things down."

Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners died and 220 were injured nationwide when they became crushed, pinned or struck by continuous mining machines underground. Mine safety experts say these deaths and injuries could be prevented if mine operators installed proximity detection devices.

On the federal level, two separate U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rules to require proximity detection systems remain stalled, one at MSHA and the other at the White House.

Terry Hudson, another industry representative on the board, said he's heard that MSHA is planning to issue one of its two rules -- requiring proximity detection for continuous mining machines -- sometime this month.

"It would be a good idea to just wait and see what is in their rule," Hudson said. Hudson said that if the state learns MSHA isn't going to act soon, he would recommend that West Virginia move ahead on its own.

In its latest regulatory agenda, made public in July, MSHA said it planned to issue a final version of the proximity detection rule for continuous mining machines sometime in August 2013.

As of Tuesday, MSHA's final language had yet to have been filed with the White House Office of Management and Budget, where an economic review of the rule could take months and further delay the rule taking effect.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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