Breathing Easy: Respiratory Protection in Coal Mines: The Recent Mining Tragedies in West Virginia Sent a Stark Reminder That Coaxing Coal from the Earth Can Be as Risky as It Is Profitable

Article excerpt

In the first 2 months of 2006, 16 miners lost their lives working in West Virginia coal mines. Since then, unions and organizations advocating for workers' rights have stomped their feet on Capitol Hill, calling for an urgent review of how safety regulations are enforced and whether the personal protective equipment used by miners, including respiratory protection, is adequate.

Fatality investigations are underway and eventually, recommendations will be made to prevent similar incidents from occurring. Since the fatal incidents, the Mine Safety and Health Administration is re-evaluating its penalty schedule for coal mine operators--especially after complaints from critics pointed to lax penalties for violations of mine safety laws.

The West Virginia government also has taken measures. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin signed a mine safety law on Jan. 26 requiring companies to keep more emergency air tanks inside their mines. Other safety measures were included in the legislation, including mandating the installation of communication and tracking systems. Many mine safety experts applauded the West Virginia legislation, insisting that the miners might have had a better chance to survive had there been more oxygen tanks available. However, recent efforts to ensure miners a second line of defense have been mitigated by criticism that such legislation is too reactive and has not been well-conceived, and that more effort needs to be placed on prevention.

PROACTIVE V. REACTIVE

H.L. Boling, president of H.L. Boling & Associates Inc., a safe production mining consultant from Pima, Ariz., is one such critic. As an avid advocate of mine safety, he wrote a four-page letter to Elaine Chao, secretary of the Department of Labor, following the West Virginia disaster, claiming the recent mining fatalities are "unacceptable." He claims the media and politicians have been pointing fingers without knowing the cause of the incident. "How do you fix anything if you don't know where it's broken?" he asked.

It's not that Boling is against providing additional or different respiratory protection for miners. Such protection is essential, he admits, but should not come at the expense of better accident prevention methods in the first place. He says that by focusing on prevention--the first line of defense--the need to acquire oxygen tanks and rescue chambers can become a second step in ensuring the miners' safety.

Fines, he adds, are an after-the-fact necessity, but he recommends the money from fines be allocated to MSHA training and to building "proactive safety processes" similar to the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program--a program that rewards companies that maintain good safety and health processes through employee and management involvement, education and compliance assistance.

"All incidents are preventable," states Boling. "We [MSHA and others involved in mine safety] must ensure that companies perform root-cause analysis to prevent further incidents and injuries following failure, share best practices and partner together for a safer mining community."

The question, for many, is whether coal mining ever can be totally safe. Coal miners, especially those that venture as far as 14,000 feet below ground, are exposed to dangers such as slope failure, underground mining roof collapse and gas explosions. That is in addition to the long-term health risks associated with mining, such as chronic lung diseases.

FACTS ABOUT COAL MINING

Despite the recent deaths in West Virginia and Kentucky, statistics from MSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that mining fatalities and injuries steadily have decreased. The United States averages around 30 mining deaths per year (U.S. population: nearly 298 million)--compared to some 8,000 in China (population: 1.306 billion)--and its safety record has been steadily improving over the past few decades. According to MSHA and BLS, U. …