Coal Miners Still Wary About Safety Sensor Rule

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By Stephen Lee

The nation’s largest miners’ union said it’s still worried about a worker safety rule on warning sensors that’s about to kick in.

For their part, coal companies said they’re expecting a seamless transition when the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s rule (RIN 1219-AB65) takes full effect, because most of them are already in compliance.

Phil Smith, government affairs director at the United Mine Workers of America, said March 12 the rule should require that malfunctioning mining machines can only be moved under the supervision of a qualified mechanic or certified electrician.

Such a requirement could have prevented the June 13, 2017, death of 32-year-old miner Rodney Osborne, who was crushed to death by a continuous mining machine at a Wharton, W.Va., mine operated by Rockwell Mining, a subsidiary of Blackhawk Mining, Smith told Bloomberg Environment.

MSHA concluded Osborne died because a warning sensor on a large cutting machine had been manually overridden. As a result, the machine didn’t shut down or warn Osborne when it got close to him.

Union Wants Tougher Training

MSHA’s rule broadly requires underground coal mine operators to put human proximity detection devices on continuous mining machines. The rule had a staggered effective date but applies to all underground coal mining companies on March 16.

The rule should have tougher training requirements, Smith also said. As written, the rules mandate training for anyone who installs or maintains a proximity detection system.

But, Smith said, workers should be trained any time a change is made to a system once it’s set up, with constant retraining—ideally daily.

Under the Mine Safety and Health Act, employers must retrain miners whenever they are assigned to new work tasks.

It’s too late to change the language in the rule, which was finalized in January 2015. At the time, it included phase-in periods of eight to 36 months to give mine operators time to modify their machines and train their workers.

However, UMWA members have the contractual right to refuse work that they and their local union safety committees deem to be unsafe, Smith said.

Murray, Arch Already in Compliance

Murray Energy has been preparing for the rule for more than three years “and will be in full compliance” on March 16, Gary Broadbent, a company spokesman, told Bloomberg Environment. He also said the rule won’t have any material impact on the productivity of Murray’s coal miners.

Similarly, Arch Coal began installing proximity systems on its continuous miner fleet in 2001, company spokeswoman Logan Bonacorsi told Bloomberg Environment. Now the company’s entire fleet has proximity systems.

Bruce Watzman, senior vice president of regulatory affairs at the National Mining Association, concurred, saying many companies have experience with the technology. None of the trade group’s members have contacted him to express concerns with the coming implementation date, Watzman told Bloomberg Environment.

“This rule has been in place for some time and this is the final phase-in, so yes, many companies have experience with the technology,” he said.

“All mining companies should be well-prepared and in compliance with this rule today,” the union’s Smith said. “The rule was in development over six years ago. It would be ridiculous to believe companies would need more time.”

Zatezalo Hints at More

In 2015, MSHA said 425 of the nation’s 863 continuous mining machines already had sensors, adding it believed most of those systems “will meet the provisions of the final rule with only minor changes, such as adding warning signals.” The agency didn’t respond to a question about how many machines are in compliance now.

During his Senate confirmation hearing last November, newly appointed MSHA chief David Zatezalo said he wants to emphasize new safety technologies, such as highly specialized proximity detection systems. He didn’t describe what those systems might include.

The sensors are especially important because most continuous mining machines are remote-controlled, according to MSHA. They can be programmed to send warning signals and stop machines before they injure miners working in a mine.

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