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US report says further mine rescue reforms needed

15 March 2013

The US National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council published a report on March 14 urging industry and government agencies to better coordinate their emergency response planning and improve efforts to train miners in underground evacuations.

There were also calls for rescue reforms after the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2010
There were also calls for rescue reforms after the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2010

The report also says federal regulators should revisit and strengthen requirements for coal operators to provide emergency breathing devices for miners to use in escapes from underground mine fires or explosions.

The 158-page report calls for more improvements in the nation's coal-mine rescue system, despite changes already required by the 2006 Miner Act, passed by Congress in the wake of the Sago and Aracoma mine disasters in West Virginia and the Darby mine disaster in Kentucky.

"Escaping during the early stages of a mine emergency is critical, and every emergency has different circumstances, resources and physical and psychological demands," said Ohio State University engineer William Marras, chairman of the panel that wrote the report.

The study, sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is the latest report to urge improvements in mine rescue preparations.

Similar reports were issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 1969 and 1981, and independent reviews following more recent mine disasters in 2006 and 2007, and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in 2010 made similar recommendations.

Among other things, the new report calls for mine operators to conduct annual mine evacuation practice exercises that would be more broad and detailed than the quarterly drills required by law.

"The scenario should test all aspects of the mine's emergency response plan and mine emergency evacuation and firefighting program to assure that these are effective and up to date," the report said.

The report also urged NIOSH and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to review their requirements for emergency supplies of breathable air, and consider more advanced technologies than the self-contained, self-rescuers that have had repeated problems.

"Supplied-air devices should be easy to use and easily accessible," the report said. Among other things, the report recommended devices that allow communication between the miners who are wearing them.

The report also urged MSHA to streamline the process it uses to review new technologies and authorise their use in the nation's underground mines. The existing process, the report said, "delays the development and introduction of new technology in US mines."

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