More than 100 years later, miners face same dangers
An explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County killed 29 men in April has garnered much of the media attention since it happened, but 15 other miners have lost their lives in the United States so far this year. Six of those fatalities were classified a powered haulage. The challenges to prevent these accidents have existed since the early 1900’s.
In 2009, eight out of the 18 deaths were categorized as ‘powered haulage’ accidents. This basically means the miner died while operating, working on, or being struck by a vehicle on coal mine property. These accidents can happen at a surface mine or underground.
Most of the fatalities last year happened on the surface while this year the majority of deaths occurred underground. The accidents range from a person being crushed by a truck he was repairing, to a man being ran over by a shuttle car.
Paul Rakes a historian at West Virginia University Technical Institute and a former coal miner says powered haulage accidents have been an issue for the industry for more than 100 years.
“Even in the period of pulling cars with mules,” Rakes said, “folks were being killed by a variety of accidents associated with the movement of machinery and in that case the movement of animals.”
Rakes says the tight quarters of an underground mine combined with a fast moving vehicle creates countless dangers.
“If you think of something such as a runaway string of railroad cars,” he said, “then imagine putting that underground, just the handling of those cars on slick rails. Then of course, once you have continuous belt haulage then shuttle cars become dominant and the shuttle car of course if what you might think of as an underground off road truck in that it’s going to the face getting a load of material taking it back.”
With mechanization came a new set of dangers and each mine is different. As a former underground shuttle car operator he depended on ‘the old timers’ to give him a ‘heads up’ on the dangers of particular sections.
“The old timers teach young miners rather quickly never to sit straight up in a motor or a shuttle car so you get knocked rather than get your neck broken,” he said.
“All these are dangers that didn’t exist until mechanization.”
Last month, the Mine Safety and Health Administration held a surface haulage workshop in Beckley. Mine Safety Instructor Roger Montali coordinated the event.
“There’s not just one common denominator,” Montali said. “What we’re really focusing on is training.”
Harold Newcomb Chairman of the Mining Technology Department at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley points out that even weather can play a large role in these accidents.
“They don’t maintain the roads like the state road does or the interstate system does,” Newcomb said.
“Particularly the haulage way to the worksite is not maintained like a normal public road would be. There’s certain geographical hazards especially on some of the mountain top mines you have fog weather conditions that may not be addressed immediately like the public highways are.”
Five out of the 14 powered haulage fatalities, were miners with 13 to 35 years of mining experience. But the victims’ time at the site they died at, was much shorter. One man had 30 years of mining experience but only 21 days at his last job. But Paul Rakes points out that before one can draw any conclusions about those numbers, you have to take into consideration what job the miner had before.
“Let’s suppose someone had 35 years working as a belt examiner,” he said, “and then he’s working running a shuttle car or he’s working on a supply motor so that variable would come into play.”
MSHA does provide the amount of general coal mining expereince as well as the amount of time the victim worked at their last site. But the details of what job or task they were responsble for throughout their career is not.
But the lack of experience at a site or a machine can be challenging.
Currently there is no industry standard for haulage equipment. This means trucks are not designed to have things like clutches or gear shifts in the same place. If a miner goes from one mine to another but keeps the same job he or she will still have to adapt.
Former MSHA leader Davitt McAteer says the slightest change in environment can create a deadly delay.
“In a heavy piece of equipment that’s moving quite rapidly and you’re in a constricted location either on a surface mine or on an underground mine,” he said, “that hesitation that confusion that can result from the changing of the controls from one place to another can be a deadly and can have significant catastrophic consequences for the driver.”
Miners are required to have hazard training to learn the unique make ups of a new site. They are also required to have task training to learn new equipment if their job involves operating equipment. But McAteer points out that there is technology available that would prevent these types of accidents such as a camera for a truck to see what’s behind the vehicle or a proximity detector that would shut off a machine if a miner was in the area.
“There are studies within the Mine Safety and Health Administration and NIOSH that would recognize that if you introduced proximity devices,” he said,” you could cut down the number of powered haulage accidents underground and perhaps as well cut down the number of powered haulage accidents on the surface but it hasn’t made it through the regulatory system.”
McAteer suggests the industry adopt this technology as an industry standard, without regulation.
“A voluntary standardization program wouldn’t be problematic for the industry,” he said. “The industry is small enough and they know it well enough that they could go through this process and it’s a give and take process but it hasn’t been gone through so far.”
Companies like Massey Energy have already installed proximity detectors in some of its mines.