In the first 2 months of 2006, 16 miners lost their lives working in West Virginia coal mines. Since then, unions and organizations advocating for workers' rights have stomped their feet on Capitol Hill, calling for an urgent review of how safety regulations are enforced and whether the personal protective equipment used by miners, including respiratory protection, is adequate.

Fatality investigations are underway and eventually, recommendations will be made to prevent similar incidents from occurring. Since the fatal incidents, the Mine Safety and Health Administration is re-evaluating its penalty schedule for coal mine operators especially after complaints from critics pointed to lax penalties for violations of mine safety laws.

The West Virginia government also has taken measures. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin signed a mine safety law on Jan. 26 requiring companies to keep more emergency air tanks inside their mines. Other safety measures were included in the legislation, including mandating the installation of communication and tracking systems. Many mine safety experts applauded the West Virginia legislation, insisting that the miners might have had a better chance to survive had there been more oxygen tanks available. However, recent efforts to ensure miners a second line of defense have been mitigated by criticism that such legislation is too reactive and has not been well-conceived, and that more effort needs to be placed on prevention.

Proactive v. Reactive

H.L. Boling, president of H.L. Boling & Associates Inc., a safe production mining consultant from Pima, Ariz., is one such critic. As an avid advocate of mine safety, he wrote a four-page letter to Elaine Chao, secretary of the Department of Labor, following the West Virginia disaster, claiming the recent mining fatalities are "unacceptable." He claims the media and politicians have been pointing fingers without knowing the cause of the incident. "How do you fix anything if you don't know where it's broken?" he asked.

It's not that Boling is against providing additional or different respiratory protection for miners. Such protection is essential, he admits, but should not come at the expense of better accident prevention methods in the first place. He says that by focusing on prevention the first line of defense the need to acquire oxygen tanks and rescue chambers can become a second step in ensuring the miners' safety.

Fines, he adds, are an after-the-fact necessity, but he recommends the money from fines be allocated to MSHA training and to building "proactive safety processes" similar to the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program a program that rewards companies that maintain good safety and health processes through employee and management involvement, education and compliance assistance.

"All incidents are preventable," states Boling. "We [MSHA and others involved in mine safety] must ensure that companies perform root-cause analysis to prevent further incidents and injuries following failure, share best practices and partner together for a safer mining community."

The question, for many, is whether coal mining ever can be totally safe. Coal miners, especially those that venture as far as 14,000 feet below ground, are exposed to dangers such as slope failure, underground mining roof collapse and gas explosions. That is in addition to the long-term health risks associated with mining, such as chronic lung diseases.

Facts about Coal Mining

Despite the recent deaths in West Virginia and Kentucky, statistics from MSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that mining fatalities and injuries steadily have decreased. The United States averages around 30 mining deaths per year (U.S. population: nearly 298 million) compared to some 8,000 in China (population: 1.306 billion) and its safety record has been steadily improving over the past few decades. According to MSHA and BLS, U.S. coal mining fatal injuries decreased 67 percent from 1990 to 2005, while the total injury rate in coal mining from 1990 to 2004 experienced a 51 percent decrease.

While decreases in fatalities and injuries are a step forward, many mine experts agree that more should be done. In January, federal regulators put forth a proposal requiring mandatory caches of oxygen tanks and breathings masks inside every coal mine. But such action was reminiscent of an earlier and similar proposal that was abandoned by the Bush administration shortly after it took office. Also, the Bush administration scrapped a proposal to explore ways to make the conveyor belts found in mines fire-resistant. A coal conveyor belt fire was the cause of the Alma accident, which resulted in two deaths.

These decisions have caused scrutiny of the Bush administration and MSHA's mine safety efforts, but some mine safety experts argue that the agency is doing all it can to make sure there aren't any more deaths. No one supports that view more than former MSHA head David Lauriski. Having once been in the shoes of David Dye, MSHA's current acting assistant secretary of labor, Lauriski knows too well the pressures of leading an agency during a tragic event. Having been with MSHA during the Quecreek accident in 2002, Lauriski is familiar with being on the receiving end of the heat. But he, unlike Dye, was lauded for his response efforts in rescuing the trapped miners.

Lauriski says that MSHA should be cut a little bit of slack. "They have their hands very full right now," he says. "They have taken steps to ensure mine safety with technical assistance and training."

Like Boling, Lauriski says that more proactive measures should be taken to promote mine safety. As far as respiratory protection goes, he agrees that it is an issue worthy of examination. Lauriski feels the issue of proper respiratory protection for miners will not be solved by adding extra oxygen tasks and rescue chambers in narrow underground tunnels. Such measures, he claims, can be as hazardous as they are helpful. "Having oxygen tanks around could cause an explosion if they are exposed to methane, so this is an issue that needs to be discussed and debated further," Lauriski notes.

But when 72 potash miners in Canada walked away from an underground fire and toxic smoke unscathed due to having access to airtight chambers with stored oxygen and food on Jan. 30, critics wanted to know why further discussion on the efficacy of such measures was needed.

Davitt McAteer, MSHA administrator during the Clinton administration, is currently leading Manchin's mine disaster investigation. He said shortly after the Canadian miners were rescued that the safety chambers in the mine were central to the miners' survival, but acknowledged that potash mines are not nearly as dangerous as coal mines where an initial explosion can provoke a secondary one 10 times as strong. A debate about safety chambers was conducted during the late 1970s, but according to McAteer, the U.S. government determined there was no material strong enough to withstand the secondary explosion.

Although not a requirement, federal regulations currently allow safety chambers to be built inside coal mines. But John Kovac, research scientist with the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory, a division of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), said building underground safety chambers is not that easy. "We need to think about how much breathable atmosphere can be provided as well as how much food and water," he says. "There are many technical issues that have to be considered."

Limited Supply and Demand

Kovac claims that merely having oxygen tanks wouldn't do much good as they only provide oxygen but don't have the ability to absorb carbon dioxide, which is what makes a breathable environment.

Current MSHA and NIOSH regulations and guidelines require that miners have access to self-contained self-rescuers: equipment that either supplies oxygen to the miner or converts air exhaled by the miner into oxygen. They typically last about an hour, depending on the miner's physical activity, health and age. Such access means that miners wear the devices on their belts or over their necks.

NIOSH has been searching for better and more modern ways of supplying self-rescuers, Kovac says. In June 2005, months before the Sago mine explosions, NIOSH hosted a workshop where the National Mine Association, United Mine Workers Union and several mine equipment manufacturers came together to brainstorm on what would make a better self-rescuer one that would be lighter in weight and smaller in size. They came up with several models: One is a hybrid unit that can switch over to a purifying filter to remove carbon monoxide so that the miner can breathe filtered air. The other would be a piggyback unit that automatically replaces a dwindling oxygen supply with a new one.

"These models, especially the hybrid, would have been a benefit to the Sago miners," Kovac said.

Bruce Watzmann, a safety expert from the National Mining Association who was present at NIOSH's workshop, said that the small market that is available hinders production of more technologically advanced breathing devices. "There are only 630 coal mines across the United States," he points out.

The companies that manufacture self-rescuers are also limited in number. MSA, for example, stopped making them 18 months ago to pursue more promising markets, said John Hierbaum, who oversees respiratory protection products for MSA.

Two Pennsylvania-based companies that currently make self-rescuers, CSE Corp. and Draeger Safety, participated in a Feb. 15 roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill that debated whether the current technology that was available was enough to ensure mine safety. There was broad agreement among them and other manufacturers present that there should be regulations clarifying what new technology should be used.

"The combined technology of small, belt-worn oxygen devices like these, in combination with larger, stored devices, would provide more oxygen for the miners if they were placed in strategic locations within the mine and this would enhance escape and rescue," said Wes Kenneweg, president and CEO of Draeger Safety. "Further technological developments to the product, such as a collapsible full-face mask rather than the current bite-type mouthpiece with nose clip, would assist in communications during an emergency. The size and weight of the product could also be improved if testing regulations were changed."

Suppliers, according to Watzmann, are searching for ways to give miners more time to escape, but it's too soon to tell how much more a smaller, more-powerful self-rescuer would cost. A self-rescuer typically costs between $500 and $650 and weighs 5 to 8 pounds. They are light enough to wear while miners are working, but miners complain the equipment gets in their way as they work.

But as more manufacturers, regulators and unions advocate for more powerful technologies, the supply-and-demand chain will increase, Watzmann said. "The discussion and debate on new technologies will ultimately cause the industry to change," he says. "The government needs to help by providing more funding for research and development."

WV Companies Implement Changes

Coal operators in West Virginia already have started to increase their orders for self-rescuers and additional supplies, according to Chris Hamilton, spokesperson for the West Virginia Coal Association.

"Coal operators have been doing the best they can to prevent any more deaths from happening," he said. "In addition to ordering extra breathing apparatuses, operators have been looking into formally proposing requirements to have safe rooms placed in strategic locations underground."

Although Hamilton is pleased that the issue of mine safety has been brought to the front line, the coal industry, according to him, has received undeserved criticism as an industry that is lax on safety.

"That is simply not true," he asserts. "Every individual, from the management level to the workers at the mines, works continuously to incorporate mine safety programs and make sure that each person leaves the mine safe and sound."

This has been going on even before the Sago and Alma mine incidents, Hamilton reports. The proof, he says, can be found in current safety records.

"You can't lose sight of the progress that's being made in the mining industry, particularly in coal," he says. "It's time to shift away from the politics, remove all emotions and focus on what we can do best to prevent any more miners from getting killed."