CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Only one out of every 25 machines used in underground coal mines across West Virginia is equipped with proximity detection systems that can help prevent some of the most common deaths and injuries in the mining industry.
Seventy-four pieces of underground mine equipment were reported to have these systems, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training found in an August survey.
That's about 4 percent of the 1,800 continuous mining machines, roof bolters, scoops, shuttle cars and other mobile equipment in use in West Virginia mines, according to the figures.
Proximity detection systems shut off fast-moving mobile equipment when miners get too close to it, preventing miners from being crushed or pinned by the equipment.
Eugene White, director of the mine safety office, said the numbers may have increased since his agency did its count in August, as mine operators anticipate the eventual finalization of a federal rule to require proximity devices.
"I would fully expect that number to be up," White said. "That number will go up."
In addition to the 74 pieces of equipment with proximity detectors, mine operators have installed blind-spot cameras on 86 pieces of underground equipment, according to the state survey.
Some industry officials have promoted cameras as an alternative to proximity detectors.
But in its proposals for nationwide rules, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration would mandate the use of proximity detection systems, not cameras. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has cautioned that cameras can be a challenge in underground mines because of "poor lighting, dust and the extreme difficulty in keeping the cameras clean." Also, proximity detectors shut off equipment automatically. With cameras, equipment operators still must see fellow workers on the screen and take action quickly enough to prevent a collision.