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Coal firms get 3 years for ‘proximity’ technology

By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer

Coal operators would have three years to outfit continuous mining machines with technology that would prevent miners from being crushed or pinned by fast-moving underground equipment, under a new rule finalized Wednesday by West Virginia’s mine safety board.

The Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety unanimously approved the rule, acting under pressure from safety advocates and the family of a miner who died in such an accident in November 2012.

Under the board’s rule, new continuous mining machines put into service after Jan. 1, 2015, would have to include a “proximity detection system” capable of stopping the machine if it gets too close to workers. Any machines that are rebuilt after July 1, 2015, also would have to include such equipment, the rule says.

However, companies would be given until July 1, 2017, to add proximity detection systems to continuous mining machines that already are in service.

And, while the rule also would require proximity detection systems on other kinds of mobile underground equipment by July 2017, the final language includes a loophole that allows mine operators to comply by using blind-spot cameras or unspecified “other alternatives” that are recommended by the board and approved by the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

“I am grateful to the board for taking a step in the right direction and leading the coal industry in the use of proximity detection,” said Caitlin O’Dell, who last year began campaigning for the rule after the death of her husband, Steven O’Dell, in the 2012 crushing accident at an Alpha Natural Resources mine.

“However, I think it is important that we continue developing the available technology and mandating its use,” O’Dell said. “Shut-off capability is necessary on all mobile equipment, not just on continuous mining machines.”

The board’s action follows years of inaction on a September 2008 recommendation by top West Virginia mine inspectors that the state move to require proximity detection devices, which can sense when workers get too close to mining equipment and shut down that equipment to avoid crushing and pinning injuries and deaths.

Board members acted six months after Caitlin O’Dell began attending their meetings and urging them to adopt a rule to spare other families what she’s been through. O’Dell’s son, Andrew, who is 15 months old, was born three weeks after his father was killed in the mine. Steven O’Dell was crushed to death by a mine “scoop,” a type of vehicle that falls within the loophole in the board’s rule.

The board’s action puts the state out ahead of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, which has yet to finalize two proximity device rules. Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners died and 200 were injured nationwide when they were crushed, pinned or struck by continuous mining machines underground, according to MSHA. Another 40 miners nationwide were killed during that same time when they were pinned or crushed by other types of mobile underground equipment, according to MSHA.

While the board approved its rule, the director of a new state mine safety project noted what he said were several weaknesses in the final version.

For example, Sam Petsonk, director of the Miner Safety Project at Mountain State Justice, criticized the board for removing a requirement that proximity detection systems used in the state stop mining equipment when it is no closer than three feet from workers. The final rule allows the state mine safety agency to set mine-by-mine distances.

Petsonk also noted that the board’s rule, while allowing “other alternatives” to proximity detection systems, does not spell out any performance standards for those alternatives.

“To be consistent and to be effective, there ought to be objective standards that apply,” Petsonk said.

The board — made up of three coal industry officials and three United Mine Workers union representatives — also approved industry-sought language that would require the state to expedite its approval of “extended cut” underground mining plans. Extended cuts allow mine operators to take larger bites of coal at a time, and mine operators argue that the practice reduces how frequently mining machines have to move underground, and thus could help reduce crushing and pinning injuries. Safety advocates worry, though, that the practice can present roof-control problems and present additional challenges in reducing exposure to the coal dust that causes black lung.

Board member Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he believes the lack of quick approval for extended-cut mining puts workers at risk every day in the state’s mines. Hamilton, though, could not provide examples of mines where the lack of requested extended cuts was found to have contributed to injuries or deaths.

“I don’t have those with me,” Hamilton said, “but there are clearly instances where mines restricted to single cuts experienced haulage accidents where, allegedly, if they had extended cuts, those accidents wouldn’t have happened.”

In formal comments on the board’s draft rule, the international UMW’s safety administrator, Dennis O’Dell, urged the board to eliminate the section regarding extended-cut approvals. But during Wednesday’s meeting, the three UMW board members voted with the industry to keep that language.

Board member Ted Hapney, one of the UMW representatives, noted that Hamilton said he would oppose the entire rule — effectively blocking the proposal, given the board’s 3-3 split between union and industry members — unless it included the extended-cut language.

“The other side indicated that they wanted something in there,” Hapney said. “It’s better to pass a rule with that in it than not to pass a rule at all.”

Board staff members expect to file the final rule with the secretary of state on April 23, and board members set the effective date as July 1.

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


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