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Coal board continues work on ‘proximity’ rule

Members of a state board worked Wednesday to move forward with a rule that would phase in a requirement for mine operators in West Virginia’s coal industry to install systems that would shut off mining equipment when it gets too close to workers.

The state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety rejected calls from the United Mine Workers and at least one mining family to eliminate language that would allow companies to use unspecified alternatives to “proximity detection” devices favored by many mine safety experts.

Board members added language that would require such alternatives to be approved not only by the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, but also by the board.

UMW members on the safety board went along with that language, despite the union’s official comments, which urged removing the provision for alternatives. Members of the family of coal miner Steven O’Dell, who was crushed to death by a mine “scoop” vehicle in November 2012, also had urged the board to eliminate the language for alternatives.

Mine safety experts say that proximity detection systems could help prevent one of the most common types of mining accidents -- being crushed or pinned by mobile underground equipment -- by stopping mining machines and coal haulage vehicles when they get too close to workers. Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners died and 200 were injured nationwide when they become crushed, pinned, or struck by continuous mining machines underground, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The board’s proposal would require proximity detection on new continuous mining machines and on continuous miners that are rebuilt within 12 months. Mine operators would be given three years to install such systems on other existing continuous mining machines.

But the proposal would give mine operators three years to install either proximity detection devices, blind-spot cameras, or “approved alternatives” on other types of mining equipment, such as the scoop that killed Steven O’Dell.

Industry representatives to the board pushed to keep the language allowing unspecified alternatives to proximity devices or cameras for other types of mining equipment, saying that better technology could be perfected any day.

“If we are as broad as we can be, that keeps from excluding future technology,” said Terry Hudson, a Patriot Coal official who holds one of the six-member board’s three industry seats. Three other seats are held by UMW officials.

Board members also removed from their proposed rule language that would require proximity devices to stop mining equipment at least three feet from any workers. That language was similar to a proposal from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, which based the three-foot stopping distance on research published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the board also refused to recognize and allow to speak a mine safety advocate from Mountain State Justice’s Miner Safety and Health Project, which has worked with Steven O’Dell’s widow, Caitlin O’Dell, to push for a stronger proximity device rule.

Sam Petsonk, director of the Miner’s Safety project, said after the meeting that he was disappointed with some of the board’s changes to its proposed rule, including the removal of the three-foot stopping distance for proximity detection devices.

“The board is deleting an objective standard and replacing it with a case-by-case determination by the director [of the state mine safety office] that won’t be subjective to public comment or to input from working coal miners,” Petsonk said.

Board members have a legal deadline of April 11 to complete the rule or decide not to move forward with it. They scheduled another meeting for April 9.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.

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