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Task force recommends 'proximity' systems in mines

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A state task force is recommending that West Virginia adopt a rule to begin requiring the use of "proximity detection" systems in underground coal mines.

Last week, the West Virginia Mine Safety Technology Task Force approved the recommendation. It's scheduled to be considered by the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety during a meeting on Thursday.

Task force members voted last week to forward the recommendation following a Gazette article last month that noted West Virginia officials had never acted on a five-year-old proposal by a team of state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training inspectors.

The task force resurrected the proposal, approving a draft rule for consideration by the mine safety board, according to a meeting agenda and board administrator Joel Watts.

In September 2008, the inspection team recommended the state require all underground mine operators to install "proximity detection" systems to shut off mining equipment when it gets too close to workers. Safety experts say these systems, being adopted by some mine operators voluntarily, can prevent one of the most common types of coal-mining accidents: Being crushed by a piece of underground equipment.

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.

MSHA chief Joe Main has touted the fact that some mine operators -- led by CONSOL Energy and Alliance Coal -- are installing proximity detectors without a legal mandate to do so. But the voluntary measures cover only about one-fourth of the continuous mining machines in use around the country, according to MSHA.

In West Virginia, state mine safety officials at one point planned to move to require proximity detection systems ahead of any federal mandate.

Back in June 2008, the state's Mine Safety Technology Task Force planned to have a draft regulation ready by January 2009 so it could become effective by June 2009, according to meeting minutes and other records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

"The task force would like to come up with a regulation before federal requirements are proposed on proximity devices," said the minutes, from a June 18-19 meeting in Charleston.

Three months later, in a Sept. 7, 2008, memo, four top state mine inspectors recommended specific language that would have given mine operators a year to install proximity detection systems.

"It is our belief that the use of a device, such as the proximity warning system, will be necessary if we are to ever eliminate injuries of this type," the memo said.

But the task force, a group from industry, labor and academia charged with reviewing new mining technologies and recommending them to regulators and the industry, never issued a formal recommendation to the mine safety board. Also, the board never acted on its own to require proximity detection systems.

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


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