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West Virginia makes life-saving mine safety change

Amid all the news about the water problems in West Virginia, a significant development in coal mine safety in the state has been almost overlooked: last Thursday, the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety unanimously approved new safety rules requiring proximity detection systems on mobile underground mining equipment.

The rules mandate proximity detection systems within six months of the effective date on all newly purchased continuous miners and within 36 months for existing continuous miners.  Additionally, cameras or proximity detection systems must be installed on scoop cars and battery-powered haulage equipment within three years.

“The Board has acted carefully and thoughtfully on the proposal,” said Board Administrator Joel Watts.  “It will continue to work together to ensure the safety of our miners remains our number one priority.”

The Board is made up of representatives of the coal industry and the United Mine Workers Union.  UMWA President Cecil Roberts praised West Virginia for being the first state to adopt the safety change.

“Several fatalities and dozens of severe injuries a year can be prevented by the proximity detection devices,” Roberts said.  “West Virginia is once again leading the way for the entire nation on improving mine safety.”

Ellen Smith, owner and editor of the independent Mine Safety and Health News, says four miners were killed last year in underground accidents that may have been prevented by proximity devices.  One of the victims was a West Virginian.  John Myles, 44, was killed at the Affinity Mine in Raleigh County when he was hit by a scoop.

Smith also reports that in 2012, two other West Virginia miners died in “struck-by” accidents within five days of each other.  Gregory Byers was killed when he was pinned between his continuous mining machine and the coal rib at the ICG Beckley LLC Beckley Pocahontas Mine in Raleigh County.  Johnny Bryant II, 35, was killed at the Coal River Mining Co. Fork Creek No. 10 mine in Boone County in a similar accident.

“We know for sure these (proximity devices) are going to prevent fatalities,” Smith told Metronews.

According to the UMWA, the devices will “sound an alarm if the person was within five feet of the machine, and automatically shut the machine off if it detected a person within a three-foot zone around the machine.”

For whatever reason, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has been slow to act on the safety devices.  MSHA has been considering requiring proximity devices since 2010, and the comment period ended in November, 2012, but still no final rule has been issued.

We know that going underground is always a risk, but these new alarms on moving equipment will improve safety in the mines, and set an example for other coal states and the federal government to follow.

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