“More than four years after the Sago Mine disaster, fewer than 1 of every 10 underground coal mines in the U.S. has added improved communications and tracking equipment that could help miners escape an explosion or fire.”

That’s the lead sentence in “Four years after Sago, few mines have new communications gear,” by the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward, who was reporting on a presentation made by MSHA officials at an “MSHA Communications & Tracking Workshop” held on Wed, March 27 in Wheeling WV.    Ward’s story continues:

“Nationwide, 415 active underground mines are required to have added this equipment. But, according to MSHA’s most recent count, only 34 have such equipment installed and fully operational. That’s a little more than 8 percent, according to the MSHA data.”

Only 34 out of 415 mines nationwide??  I suspected that some mine operators were falling behind on these installations, but 34 out of 415??  That’s appalling.  

But it gets worse.

In eastern Kentucky, for example (with some of the harshest working conditions for coal miners), MSHA says there are 67 underground coal mines that are supposed to have communication and tracking systems, but only 2 have the updated equipment.  Ten more are working on getting it.  What about the other 55 mines??  

In Alabama, which has some of the gassiest underground mines in the country (with higher risk of methane explosion), MSHA says that none of those 7 coal mines have new communication and tracking systems installed.  Two mines are working on getting their systems in place.

The data MSHA released reveals a troubling lack of urgency by MSHA leadership, and/or acquiescence to coal mine operators’ and their trade association’s ascertions that it is so darn complicated to get communication systems to work in underground coal mines.  Somebody needs to remind MSHA to take advantage of the technology forcing principle embedded in our OH&S statutes.  It’s time to ignore the complaints that communication and tracking technology is not 100% perfect and doesn’t work exactly right all of the time.  Neither does my cell phone.  That doesn’t stop me from having one because most of the time it does work, and I sure want to have it during an emergency.

When I look at the MSHA data I want to know who owns the 12 coal mines in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri that haven’t installed or even begun to install a communication and tracking system?  Two mines in this part of the country have done so, telling me it is  feasible.

Who owns the 32 mines in southern Virginia who have not installed improved systems?
Who owns the 13 underground coal mines in the western US who have not installed enhanced communication and tracking systems?

I urge MSHA to revise this data sheet to include the names of the mines and controlling companies.  That would shed a bright light on this issue, and let the public and lawmakers know more about this slice of the state of affairs for coal miners’ H&S.

Look at the MSHA data and judge for yourself whether this is the pace of progress the Sago miners’ families expected when they sat in the White House for the signing ceremony of the MINER Act.  

In the early days immediately after the January 2-4, 2006 Sago coal mine explosion, I spent a fair amount of time meeting with and having phone conversations with family members who lost fathers, husbands, sons and brothers at that mine.  We talked about all the many things that caused and contributed to the disaster, and how if even one thing had been different, the fate of those 13 men, their families, and co-workers might have been different.  They wondered why MSHA didn’t require mine operators to install tracking and modern communication devices that were already commercially available.

The families were only 1 month into their grief when we all heard about the 70 miners trapped underground in a potash mine in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan following a fire.  The Canadian miners had the safety of a refuge chamber and a means to communicate to their mine rescue team.  Just a few months later, in May 2006, we learned of the two Australian gold miners who were trapped 3,000 feet underground and were communicating with rescuers via a rescue tunnel.

The Sago families rightfully asked:

  • “what is wrong with the U.S.A. when we don’t require something as fundamental as two-way means for our underground miners to communicate with people on the surface (above ground)?”  
  • “Do people out there know that half our electricity comes from coal, miners risk their lives for your electricity, but they can get trapped with no required means of communication?   What is this the 1950’s???”
  • “Do you know how much a continuous miner (machine) or longwall miner costs, but mine operators won’t spend money on communication systems?”

 That’s what I heard 4 years ago, and I suspect I’d hear the same thing if a disaster tomorrow trapped miners underground with no improved means of communication.

The Charleston Gazette’s story by Ken Ward, Jr. says:

“MSHA officials declined last week to make an agency official available for an interview for this story.   In a prepared statement Friday, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said a number of “bugs” have delayed installation of some systems, and cited a small number of manufacturers and long lead times for delivery as other reasons for the ‘relatively low number of complete installations.'”

I was surprised to read the appropriate reaction from the National Mining Association’s Bruce Watzman: 

“It’s not good, and it’s a situation I don’t think anyone is happy with.”

The Ken Ward story also reminded me of the outrage expressed immediately after the Sago disaster, when lawmakers and the public were appalled to learn example after example of the outdated safety equipment still used today by our nation’s coal miners.  Ward noted that Senator Harkin said it best when he declared that there are times the government must force employers to address health and safety hazards.

“You hate to regulate everything, but if they’re not going to do it, doggone it, we ought to make them.”

Tomorrow, Labor Secretary Solis and MSHA asst. secretary Joe Main will be marking the 40th anniversary of the Coal Mine Health & Safety Act.   The achievements made following that historic worker health and safety law should be a source of pride for miners, employers and the government.   Reading about the snail’s pace for installing modern communication and tracking for underground miners taints the celebration.

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH is an asst. research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She worked at OSHA (1991-1995) and MSHA (1996-2001), and had the privilege of serving on WV Governor Machin’s special investigation team of the Sago Mine disaster from January 2006-August 2006.  She continues to work with family member victims of workplace hazards through United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities