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Mine board working on competing 'proximity device' rules

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Labor and industry representatives on a West Virginia mine safety board are working on competing proposals to curb deaths and injuries from miners being crushed or pinned by fast-moving underground mining equipment.

During a meeting Thursday in Charleston, members of the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety asked board administrator Joel Watts to draw up at least three initiatives on the issue.

United Mine Workers union representatives on the board want to require mine operators to install "proximity detection" technology on all mobile underground equipment.

Board member Chris Hamilton, a vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, asked for a different proposal, which would require proximity detection only for continuous-mining machines. Hamilton said he also wants to look at other measures, including reflective clothing, strobe lights and more-detailed safety examinations of mobile equipment to ensure driver visibility isn't blocked.

Additionally, board member Terry Hudson, a safety official with Patriot Coal, asked Watts to draw up a detailed "white paper" that offers every potential option for dealing with crushing and pinning accidents. Hudson said that paper would then be discussed to help board members develop a rule, rather than simply ordering mine operators to install proximity devices.

"We need a comprehensive approach to the problem -- not just sticking something on there and saying, 'That's it,'" Hudson said.

The board's request for proposed rules and a white paper renews discussions about an issue that industry members had blocked action on in early October.

It remains unclear, though, if board members -- gubernatorial appointees split 3-3 between industry and labor -- will be able to reach agreement on any sort of rule.

A stalemate at the board would further the state's inaction, which continues more than five years after a team of top mine inspectors recommended requiring proximity devices.

Mine safety experts say proximity-detection systems could help prevent one of the most common types of mining accidents -- being crushed or pinned by mobile underground equipment -- by stopping mining machines and coal-haulage vehicles when they get too close too workers.

Nationwide between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners died and 200 were injured when they became crushed, pinned or struck underground by continuous-mining machines, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

On the federal level, MSHA has been working on two rules to require proximity-detection systems nationwide. One proposal, covering only continuous-mining machines, is stuck inside MSHA. The other, addressing all other mobile underground equipment, has been pending at the White House Office of Management and Budget for more than two years.

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. However, the voluntary measures cover only about one-fourth of the continuous-mining machines in use around the country, according to MSHA data.

In West Virginia, only about 4 percent of all mobile underground machines have been equipped with proximity-detection systems. While the state count includes not just continuous miners but all mobile machines, a breakdown by type of machine has not been made public.

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


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