- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

PRINCETON, Ind. (AP) — A federal rule issued Tuesday requires all U.S. mines to use sensors that can halt digging machines if miners get too close, a move aimed at preventing workers from being crushed to death.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of Labor Joe Main visited an underground coal mine Tuesday in southern Indiana to see a demonstration of the safety technology, which is called a proximity detector. The detectors are already in use at the Alliance Resource Partners Gibson North mine that hosted Main’s visit.

Federal mine safety officials say machinery-related deaths are preventable. Main’s agency, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the most common cause of the 40 deaths at all the nation’s mines last year involved powered hauling and mining machinery, including 10 at coal mines.

“Over the next few years we should have it fully implemented, so down the road, we should be able to eliminate these crushing deaths and injuries,” Main said.

An Associated Press reporter was invited to travel underground Tuesday with Main, federal officials and representatives from Alliance, which operates the massive mine. The trip was a rare glimpse at the inner workings of an underground operation. During a demonstration about 2 miles underground, a hulking continuous mining machine shut off immediately as a miner with a sensor approached.

The 60-ton continuous mining machine uses teeth mounted on a spinning drum to cut into the coal seam. Since its introduction in the middle of the last century, it and other digging machines have revolutionized underground coal mining by increasing efficiency and eliminating the need for explosives. It can be operated by one person who stands near the machine, but that worker can be in danger of being crushed in the cramped quarters of a mine.

The continuous mining machines have fatally crushed 35 miners since 1984, according to MSHA. The agency says most of those deaths could have been prevented with proximity detectors, but developing sensors that work effectively in underground environments took years to develop.

“It’s a system that sounds very ordinary, but it’s complicated to get it to function in the harsh environment of an underground coal mine,” Main said.

The most recent death associated with a continuous miner occurred in February in Virginia. Arthur Gelentser, 24, was remotely operating a continuous miner at the Dominion Coal No. 30 mine when he was caught between the wall and the machine.

The federal rule requires mine operators to retrofit continuous mining machines with the detectors and for all newly built continuous miners to include the detectors by Nov. 16.

The rule has received support from the mining industry and the United Mine Workers of America, which both voiced approval for the upgrade during public input sessions in recent years.

Main credited Alliance and a few other major mine operators for their role in developing the technology, which has been in the works since 2002. Alliance said all of its machines shipped since October 2009 have included built-in proximity detectors. MSHA said there are about 860 continuous miners in use in underground mines around the country, and about half of them have been fitted with the proximity detectors. Mine operators that don’t have the sensors installed by the deadlines will face a violation, but Main said right now the agency is focused on getting the rest of the machines up to compliance.

The sensors can be programmed to form a perimeter around a continuous mining machine, and the machine operator wears a receiver that interacts with the sensors installed on the four corners of the machine. An Alliance-owned company called Matrix developed the proximity detectors in use in its mines.

Main said two decades ago, most deaths in underground mines were caused by roof collapses, but with those deaths reduced, machines have become the danger.

“We’ve got those numbers down to the point that we’re talking about miners getting crushed as one of the comparable causes of mining deaths,” he said. “And with proximity detection, we can make that disappear.”

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