Blue-Ribbon Panel Zeroes In on Culture Change

"We are tremendously safer. But it's not good enough to say that."

Editor's note: Safety in U.S. coal mines has been a front-burner issue since a methane explosion killed 12 miners Jan. 2, 2006, inside the Sago Mine, located near Buckhannon in Upshur County, W.Va. That incident sparked the MINER Act, an important reform of federal mine safety regulations; a 101-page report delivered in July 2006 to West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III; and an independent, 10-member commission of experts created by the National Mining Association to examine mine safety technology and training. The commission's chairman is Dr. R. Larry Grayson, Ph.D., who chairs the University of Missouri-Rolla's Department of Mining and Nuclear Engineering. Grayson is an experienced underground mine superintendent who was associate director of NIOSH's Office for Mine Safety and Health Research from November 1997 to November 2000. In an Aug. 8 interview with the editor of Occupational Health & Safety, he discussed the state of coal mine safety and how the commission hopes to improve it.

How has the commission's work proceeded?

Dr. Larry Grayson: Soon after the Sago Mine disaster, the National Mining Association had approached me to see whether I would be willing to serve as chair for a commission that would be composed and empowered to do an independent study of the condition of mine safety in the United States. Obviously focusing on the emergency side of things, it would study mine health and safety in such a way to determine how the United States could regain a global leadership position, not just in productivity but also in safety.

Were you looking more at human factors or technology?

The study cut across everything. Technology across four different areas, the training requirements relative to responses during emergencies, but also a comprehensive approach towards prevention of accidents in general through a good risk assessment process.

All of that obviously affects the performance levels of individuals all the way up to management--the way they go about building a safety culture.

Was there a sense this had lapsed? Or that we've never been where we need to be?

I think all of the commissioners, who had been in the industry, were quite surprised. Quite honestly, our study had showed that, from 1993 through 1999--that's a seven-year period--there were no fatalities because of fires and explosions in U.S. underground coal mines.

To achieve this type of culture change across the industry will require a tremendous effort.

We knew there had been fires and explosion fatalities before, in the '80s and the '90s, but examination showed there was not one in that seven-year period. All of a sudden, something happened, from 2000, when we first started seeing a couple, and then 2001 with Jim Walters Resources [#5 Mine, two explosions that killed 13], and then steadily throughout the 2000s, culminating early this year, if you will, with a terrible series of tragedies.

This really hit everyone in the industry right between the eyes. And we were sitting there saying, "What happened?"

There are 71 recommendations in the Commission report, things that really need to be done seriously for the industry to get back to the point where there are zero fatalities from fires and explosions, and beyond.

Alternative Seals Under the Microscope

What had changed?

In the period before 1993, say from 1984 through 1992, we had seen disasters occurring primarily because of inadequate ventilation. And then, for whatever reason, [methane] was ignited, sometimes along haulage ways where there was no requirement for "permissibility."

In the really dangerous areas of a mine, up in the face areas where they cut the coal, methane is generated--sometimes fairly liberally, sometimes not as much, but it's always there. It's also in the return airways: Clean air is directed there, where the people work, and then it sweeps away the methane and dust and removes them to what we call a return airway. This path returns the air back outside again. Well, that's what miners depend on to keep everything in good, working order and remove the hazards.

What had happened was, the ventilation around complex areas that were mined out already--we call them gob areas, which can be fairly extensive at times--[these] were really difficult to ventilate effectively; it takes a good effort to make the ventilation system work right, to sweep across these gob areas and take the methane away from the active workings and into bleeder systems around those areas. That's the way the ventilation needs to be done, and someone must hawk after it to make sure that it's maintained properly to do what it was intended to do.

What had happened in that period of time was five of six incidents had problems with inadequate ventilation of active workings and/or around bleeder areas, and especially when a panel was being mined down to the last part of the panel, ready to make a ventilation change. That was the predominant problem.

After 1992, there was a transition going on since that seemed to be a big problem. A lot of operators started around 1993 or so to say, let's seal these areas instead. In mining we have the option: We can either ventilate the gob areas or we can seal them. Sealing basically means isolating the area so no ventilation goes there, and then you allow stuff to happen back on the other side of that seal.

Typically, you will not have any kind of ignition source or explosion in a sealed area, but the methane will build up and will enrich way past the explosive range, which is 5 to 15 percent. When the area is first sealed, the methane is much below that level, but eventually it goes through that range and then goes past it, when it is no longer explosive. At the same time, the oxygen levels are reduced in these sealed areas. After a long period of time, oxygen would not support combustion, either.

So that was the idea. They started building seals on a regular basis, and that trend kept going. In the early days following 1992, they were putting in the standard, approved seals. These were pretty strong, solid-block walls. To get extra strength, they were hitched, in other words cut, into the rib--into both of the side walls--6 inches deep. Same thing in the roof and the floor. So they were really pretty strong. The requirement of law was that they had to withstand a 20 psi explosive force. That's a big issue for debate right now; there's a temporary standard out from MSHA right now that has raised it to 50 for alternative seals.

Here's the rest of the story. Some mines were still trying to ventilate their gobs, but the trend was to start putting in seals instead. For the period from 1993 to 1999, it looked like we had the previous problem solved. I think a large part of that was because we were putting in excellent seals. And all of a sudden there began a movement to approve alternative choices for seals.

Because there hadn't been a problem with them, people thought the initial problem was solved? And they thought there might be a better way to do it or they could get more production?

Either way, for whatever reason. But they were approved by MSHA to be used as alternative seals to the previous design I've described. Once they're approved, if it's a benefit, people are going to use them. They were tested by NIOSH in the early years and shown to withstand 20 psi at that time.

It's not clear to me whether MSHA prescribed exactly how they had to be constructed, [whether] they had to be hitched into the floor and the ribs and the roof like before. But a lot of them were never hitched.

The Sago Mine and then the Darby Mine #1 in Kentucky--both of those had alternative seals in them. And both of those suffered explosions of the methane gas that had built up. Either it was exploded behind the seal or it was exploded next to the seal and emanated back behind the seal.

The seals are meant to isolate those areas. And even if an explosion were to occur back in those areas, for whatever reason, the seals are supposed to keep that explosion from emanating into the mine.

So now, instead of inadequate ventilation, we have to start looking at the criteria for seals and what other risk analysis-based interventions should be taken to remove that high level of risk for explosions because of abandoned areas. That's something that the industry is looking at very, very freshly now.

Mine operators won't stop using sealed areas as standard practice, will they?

I doubt that. I think people are more comfortable [with sealed areas]. We've got about 650 underground coal mines in the United States, and the vast majority of them, about 75 to as much as 80 percent, have 50 or fewer employees. The larger mines will probably look at their risk, analyze for that, and then come up with what they think is the best intervention. And probably, sealed areas will still be their right answer.

It's hard to say what the smaller mines will do; oftentimes they don't even have abandoned areas. Many of them just drive through a mountain, take what they can get, and come back out again within a year or two.

Mine Evacuations

Given the number and variety of mines you've described, is there commonality in the way evacuations are being handled?

For emergencies, every single underground coal miner is trained to escape. That's the number one thing to do. Nobody would stay in unless they just absolutely felt there was no way they were going to get out safely. Most of them carry on their belts the self-contained self rescuer that provides oxygen. For others it's close by, and they can get to it fairly quickly and put it on.

They're trained on how to don those devices. Unfortunately, we have not had training that required them to put them on and actually use them, to understand what the resistance to breathing is like when using the potassium super oxide type model instead of the compressed air bottle. So that's foreign to them. And I can understand how the miners that complained they weren't getting the oxygen out of the device, and were in an excited state, maybe; they were over-breathing the generation of oxygen. That's a serious problem when someone is trying to use these things, especially if not experienced before.

That's a real issue. They know how to do don them, generally. Now, whether or not we've got the right generation of oxygen-supplying devices is a huge debate right now.

What is the state of the art of breathing devices, and also the two-way tracking devices addressed in the MINER Act, that are in use today?

About 65 or 70 percent of the self-contained self rescuers that were being used in January 2006 were the CSE SR-100, which has had the problem of sensible resistance to breathing, and thus were not fully used. MSHA checked them out: They were generating oxygen.

But what we're seeing right now are two major things. In West Virginia and now with MSHA, too, after the MINER Act, everybody is looking at placing these oxygen devices roughly at 1,000- to 3,000-foot intervals and having caches in the mine with enough devices for the number of miners that are anticipated having to use them on a given shift. What's happening now is that they are being required in the escapeways. There are two separate and distinct escapeways, one primary and one secondary, in every mine--accessible to a miner from anywhere they may work, continuous all the way to the outside.

There are quite a few of the companies switching over to the oxygen bottles, to tell you the truth. And one thing that is not good is to mix devices.

Large ratios of devices per miner are being seen now. Basically, when you space these devices every 1,000 to 3,000 feet and you've got a mine that might run for miles, you're looking at up to maybe 20 devices per miner.

So this change might bring a really large increase in business to the few companies that make these devices?

Yes. Twenty per miner on a particular shift, and there might be as many as a hundred miners on that shift. And these things cost about $650 apiece.

These have a shelf life, don't they?

They have a shelf life. Generally, the shelf life has been 10 years, with one exception, I believe. There's a routine biannual testing of devices that are pulled randomly from the field. Related to this, as you know, there's a bigger movement--especially in West Virginia and Kentucky, where they are already mandating it--to do more random tests more regularly.

Do you and your commission support that?


Creating a Safer Culture

What about the MINER Act? Is it everything we need or just a good first step?

Nobody would come right out and tell you this is the end-all. They're not going to do that. It is a start. That's what the congressmen and the senators were saying: It's a good first step. The same thing with the miners' union, same thing with the associations: They're all saying, "This is something we can agree on now," realizing that some of the technology, some procedures, and some of the culture change processes that are needed are really going to take a little bit of time.

Changing a culture and doing business in a different way, focusing on risk, will require a transition period.

Will your report strongly say culture change is necessary?

One of the reasons that Australia has wrested from the United States the leadership in mine safety is because they caused such a change several years ago.

How did they do it?

They passed a law. They require a risk-based management plan that addresses hazards at a mine. And then they require other types of plans, just like the MINER Act does now: They require written emergency response plans, and the plans must be periodically reviewed and updated.

It's the same thing they were doing in Australia, but they also went farther. They gave models and guidelines on how to do risk assessment and how to manage interventions to reduce the risk for specific hazards that need to be addressed.

Although one could say we were doing that by doing good, thorough examinations and complying with regulations, we weren't looking at specific interventions to address previously unidentified risks, trying to drive technological answers, using systematic approaches to mitigate the risks or reducing them completely--especially the ones we don't want to live with like roof falls, explosions, fires, and inundations.

It sounds as though you believe Australia has set the standard; will your report say it is the model we should follow?

Sure, but there is a fundamental difference between Australia and the United States' underground coal industry: You're hard-pressed to find a small mine in Australia. Almost all of theirs are large mines. In large mines, basically you have extremely professional people running them. And they have built a safety culture right along with the production and productivity side of things, for the most part.

Superimposed upon the way they manage their large mines, now they're being much more thorough in addressing every hazard, reducing the risk, and using good methods that were developed at the University of Queensland on contract for New South Wales and Queensland.

Basically, Australia's industry adopted these approaches. I've worked with some Aussies here in the United States; we were going to test some new cutting bits from Australia in one of the underground coal mines in Illinois. We spent four hours the first day we got together on risk analysis. It was a total risk analysis approach--project-oriented, too. Not just the health and safety part, but that was in it. It was everything else, too: For example, "What would you do if you had two respirable dust sampling pumps go down?" The answer: "Oh, I brought four extras. . . . And we're going to get triplicate samples at every location."

Do you mean that's the way they are oriented to think from the outset of everything they're doing?

It was quite thorough and impressive.

And that's where our mining culture needs to be?

Yes. I believe the large mines [in our] industry have been moving in this direction for a long time. I think MSHA believes in the approach, as well.

You've mentioned the many small mines here. How difficult will it be to get to that point in this country?

It's going to be quite difficult to get culture change across all different mine sizes. MSHA has a pretty good-sized workforce. And with the MINER Act and some supplemental appropriations, I believe they are hiring more inspectors. They're planning to hire 200 more. To achieve this type of culture change across the industry will require a tremendous effort.

It has to be driven mainly by MSHA? Can it be an initiative the mining industry carries itself?

The leaders in the large-operation industry believe we're to the point where we're going to have to be self-policing. [They'll] come out and say, "That is unacceptable mining practice. People who can't perform the way that we're prescribing really shouldn't be in the business." Because the business is protecting people doing their jobs, in addition to trying to make a business profit; you can't make the two goals mutually exclusive and be successful.

That is a tough change to make. I guess other industries have accomplished it, but self-policing has to be truly enforced. People who won't measure up can't be allowed in the field. How do you do that?

It's a tough one to do, it really is. . . . If the large coal mines, particularly, and the unions, and the government all three get behind this and say, "This is the way we do business," and we get serious about it like Australia did, this will happen.

And if you get the political leadership in the states where these mines operate to be involved and speak out about it, maybe you could get somewhere.

Over three years, China shut down 60,000 small mines or more. And they're on a timetable right now to shut another 60,000 or 80,000 mines down.

That's what is happening in China right now. They've basically set a three-year timetable for shutting down small mines. Probably 85 percent of their mines are small mines--thousands of them. The problem is they aren't state-controlled or -enforced, either. When you get down to provinces and down to the municipalities, there's a lot of graft. There's a general lack of concern about taking care of the miners first because they're your most valuable asset.

The state made up its mind that they're going to force these mines out of business. They've already started shutting them down. Over three years, they shut down 60,000 small mines or more. And they're on a timetable right now to shut another 60,000 or 80,000 mines down.

That's interesting. When you look at their enormous growth in energy demand and yet see them doing that, you know they must be serious.

They're serious. It's a blemish. It's a human rights issue, really.

Restoring Safety Leadership

Will the United States return to a leadership position worldwide in mine safety?

I'm absolutely convinced of it. It's going to take another step change in culture. [We had] that period from 1993 through 1999, and then the record low fatalities that occurred three times after that, in spite of some fatalities on the fires and explosion side, which we don't want. If those hadn't occurred, we'd likely have had records all the way through to the present.

Last year in the coal industry we had record low fatalities. And the rates have been going down, too; it's not just the magnitude.

We have gotten much safer.

Yes, we have. We are tremendously safer. But it's not good enough to say that. What we've got to do is take away these agonizing experiences, where people are suffering through persistent types of injuries and fatalities. In underground mines, roof fall fatalities came back and have been haunting us again. And the same thing occurred for the fires and explosions recently.

Those are the big three. And powered haulage--moving equipment--continues to be a problem, which happens at surface mines especially. The big thing there we have to get under control is the powered haulage accidents and fatalities. Faulty brakes on trucks, not doing thorough inspections, losing control while going downhill--which may be partly brakes, but partly going too fast for conditions.

Those are the persistent areas that we have to hit head-on and do some fundamental things to change the whole situation and conditions so we drive those away.

The culture change you're seeking works for all of those problems, wouldn't it?

Exactly. Obviously, the risk assessment and focus on prevention and zero fatalities and zero serious injuries is one aspect of it. We've also looked very hard at emergency response and mine rescue procedures. We've got a lot of recommendations in those areas.

And we've got quite a few on training, many recommendations on more realistic, more immersive, more challenging training focusing on very key principles that need to be learned, from the management all the way down to the workers, including on effective escape or aided rescue. We're dealing with the whole issue, too, of adding a new level of professionalism and certification to mine rescue and emergency response. We have a number of items that focus on enhancing escape; we have a number that focus on protection of miners who can't escape. There's a chapter on communications technology. Ultimately, we need robust two-way communication that can survive an emergency incident and be maintained, and even redundant, hardened systems. That way, we could get everything we need to protect miners.

This Q&A appeared in the November 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

Roster of the NMA Commission
Ten commissioners made up the NMA panel created after the Sago disaster:

  • R. Larry Grayson (Chair), Chairman, Department of Mining and Nuclear Engineering, University of Missouri-Rolla, former Associate Director of the Office for Mine Safety and Health Research, NIOSH. He has a Ph.D. in Mining Engineering from West Virginia University and is a certified Mine Foreman and a registered Professional Engineer in Pennsylvania.
  • Mark N. Beauchamp, Mine Rescue Trainer, Twentymile Coal Company, who is a 25-year veteran of underground mines with extensive experience as a rescue team member in Colorado and Utah. He has MSHA certification as an underground mine foreman.
  • Anthony Bumbico, Vice President, Safety for Arch Coal, Inc. and previously Vice President of Safety for Horizon Natural Resources and Director of Human Resources and Safety for AEP Fuel Supply Co.
  • Stanley I. Cohn, Executive Vice President, Concepts to Operations, Inc., who has experience in 9-1-1 and telephone systems and public safety radio systems.
  • Amy K. Donahue, Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut and Technical Advisor to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science & Technology Directorate. She received the NASA Public Service Medal for her service during the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster recovery effort.
  • J. Brett Harvey, President and CEO of CONSOL Energy, Inc. and former President and CEO of PacificCorp Energy Inc., a subsidiary of PacifiCorp, one of the country's largest electric utility companies.
  • Jeffrey L. Kohler, NIOSH Associate Director for Mining and Construction and former Director of the NIOSH Pittsburgh Research Laboratory. He holds a Ph.D. in Mining Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University and is a Certified Mine Safety Professional.
  • Thomas Novak, Chairman, Department of Mining and Mineral Engineering, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He previously headed the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alabama and holds a Ph.D. in Mining Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University.
  • Cecil E. Roberts, Jr., President of the United Mine Workers of America. A sixth-generation coal miner, he became the union's president in 1995 and in 2004 won election to a new five-year term.
  • H.F. "Buddy" Webb, First Vice President of the U.S. Mine Rescue Association and Mine Rescue Trainer of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Carlsbad, N.M. He is a member of the MSHA National Mine Rescue Advisory Committee who began his career in mine rescue in 1978 as a rescue team member at the Kerr-McGee Potash Corp. and became the first secretary and founding member of the New Mexico Rescue Association the same year.

The Commission's Plan of Action
Ten reviewers, including two former assistant secretaries of Labor for mine safety and health, read the commission's report before its release. Grayson said the panel will push for more congressional action to further its recommendations:

We're going to release it very broadly, and we're going to go beyond that. You never know quite how the press, or associations, or labor organizations, or the government in general are going to respond to something. So we've got a plan: We're going to take the clout that we've developed between the composition of the commission and the reviewers, and then we plan to go to the Hill and sell this plan that would put the United States in a leadership role in safety.

Is the object to amend the MINER Act or to come back with a follow-on act that can get more done?

We're doing this because we believe in it. This commission has been comprised of people who are absolutely dedicated to the miners who work in these mines. We're very, very passionate about what we're writing. And it translates that we want action.

Mine Safety Online Resources

West Virginia Sago Mine Disaster report (July 2006)

MSHA's MINER (Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response) Act Summary Page

Mine Safety and Health Network

United States Mine Rescue Association

Joseph A. Holmes Safety Association Bulletins

National Mining Association

United Mine Workers of America

This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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