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Mining Accident Raises Broader Safety Questions

The mining disaster at West Virginia's Sago Mine has raised new questions about safety in an industry that has long been among the most dangerous in America.

Tougher government regulation and technology improvements have helped reduce mining accidents over the past two decades. But at a time of increased mining demand and a shortage of skilled workers, safety problems have continued to dog the industry, contributing to more than 300 fatalities since the year 2000.

To better understand the safety issues faced by the mining industry, NPR talked to mine safety expert Davitt McAteer, former assistant secretary for mine safety and health for the Department of Labor.

We read about mining disasters in far-flung places like China. And many of us think, 'Oh, that couldn't happen here.' Have things really improved much in the United States in recent years?

In fact, mining safety in the U.S. has improved dramatically since passage of the Mining Safety and Health Act of 1977. (In that year, 272 miners died on the job, versus just 56 in 2003.)

Trouble is, no matter how many safety measures we introduce into the workplace, the dangers are recreated every 24 hours. You're basically building a new workplace with every new place you explore: new roof problems, new support systems, new sources of methane gas. It's not like a factory where you can identify a safety problem, rope it off and fix it. Miners have to be a lot more vigilant than other workers.

Growing demand for commodities like coal has prompted new exploration and the reopening of some old mines. Has that had an impact on mining safety?

Because of increases in coal demand (mostly to power electric utilities), you've basically gone from a stagnant industry to a growth industry in a matter of a few years. That means you've had to open up new mines and reopen old ones. But when you go back into a mine that's been idle, you're dealing with a lot of old equipment that may or may not have been maintained properly. It's a lot like buying a used car: You buy the other fellow's problems.

With all the recent increases in mining demand, there's also been a growing shortage of skilled miners. What impact has that had on safety?

Mining is a lot like other mature industries these days. The population of workers is getting older. You not only have a general labor shortage, you're also losing managers and inspectors and other experienced people with a lot of institutional knowledge. At the same time, you're introducing a lot of new people who don't have experience. There's a steep learning curve, and there are serious problems if you don't understand what you're doing. In the past, we've always seen higher accidents when new groups of miners are added to the labor pool. We haven't seen real numbers on the newest round of hiring, but it's intuitive that they're going to have problems adjusting, too.

The fatalities we usually hear about in the media occur when mines explode. But aren't most miners are killed in less sensational circumstances?

That's correct. Mine explosions aren't actually all that common. What's more typical is when a roof collapses and crushes a miner. You also have a lot of safety problems with haulage and transportation, and with workers getting electrocuted. You're talking about a lot of large equipment, moving at a high rate of speed and powered by high-voltage electricity. Add in the fact that you're working in very cramped spaces, and the chance of someone getting caught up and crushed, or that some cable gets cut and someone gets electrocuted, increases.

As part of their safety training, underground miners are required to carry self-rescue kits. What are they and how do they work?

They're called Self-Contained Self-Rescuer units, or SCSRs, and they come in two types: oxygen bottles and canisters. Those devices give you an hour's worth of protection, which is meant to be enough for you to get to a place where there's fresh air. The SCSRs aren't ideal, but lives have certainly been saved since they became required equipment.

An hour of oxygen doesn't seem like much when miners are sometimes trapped for days, like the miners in the Sago mine accident. Do the SCSRs offer enough protection?

Well, they're the best we've got right now. There's been a lot of innovation in the industry, but it's mostly been on the production side. (For example, technology improvements and increased automation have dramatically improved productivity, allowing one man to produce about 13 tons of coal per day today, versus about 3 tons back in the 1970s.) The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health is developing a next-generation SCSR system that's both smaller and lasts longer. But it’s still in the works.

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