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Summer 2013 Vol. 13 Number 1

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ęStephanie Carter/

Mine Safety

Improving Miners' Ability to Escape From Disasters

Recent disasters at West Virginia's Sago and Upper Big Branch mines are vivid reminders of the inherent dangers of working in underground coal mines. In 2006, Congress enacted the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, which strengthened mine safety regulations and introduced new measures for improving emergency preparedness and response. Since then, the mining industry has spent $1 billion on emergency preparations.

Improvement in mine safety -- especially through regulation -- often comes after a major disaster and is designed to mitigate causes of particular incidents. Equally important in overall safety is preparing individual miners with the necessary knowledge, tools, and skills to successfully escape from any emergency situation. Outlining these requirements was the focus of a recent National Research Council report.

Successful escape is not a solo effort but requires a proactive, coordinated approach. The report recommends what is called a human-systems integration approach that incorporates training, technology, equipment, and emergency response plans to establish unified, efficient, and effective protocols that empower self-escape in a mine emergency.

Vast variability in the underground coal mining industry, such as the size of the mine, number of workers, or mining conditions, makes it difficult to ascribe a single best method to managing mine safety. Mine operators should help their workers learn to recognize or respond to warning signals as well as become aware of the specific hazards, exits, and resources where they work. The report recommends that at least annually, in conjunction with one of the required quarterly escape drills, mine operators should conduct a comprehensive self-escape scenario exercise at every underground mine.

In the event of an emergency, a breathable air supply is key for self-escape. Emergency air supply equipment in underground coal mines must function properly in oxygen deficient atmospheres and protect against all harmful gases. Equipment designers should consider optimal size and weight of devices, whether and how air supplies should be changed over or replenished, and miners' ability communicate verbally and see adequately.

Miners should also have a working knowledge of their surroundings and equipment to effectively remove themselves and others to a safe place, as well as have the psychological skills to make decisions and communicate effectively -- abilities that can be compromised under stress.

Safety should be a core value in all aspects of mine operation, organization, and training. The report urges mine operators and industry regulators to pursue efforts that create a strong, positive culture of safety. -- Lauren Rugani

Improving Self-Escape From Underground Coal Mines. Committee on Mine Safety: Essential Components of Self-Escape, Board on Human-Systems Integration, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2013, 167 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-28276-5; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $45.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by William S. Marras, professor of engineering at Ohio State University. The study was funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's Office of Mine Safety and Health Research.

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Copyright 2013 by the National Academy of Sciences