Winter's Approach Heightens Mine Explosion Concern

Winter Alert months means it's time for nation's miners and mine operators to take extra precautions.

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The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is reminding miners and mine operators that the risk of underground coal mine explosions increases with the approach of cooler weather and urges redoubled vigilance to prevent mine tragedies this winter.

Historically, the nation''s most devastating mine disasters have occurred between October and March, called the Winter Alert months.

"This year the coal mining industry saw its first fatal explosion in six years," MSHA Administrator Davitt McAteer said.

"We must never become complacent about this danger," he said, pointing to several recent methane explosions at underground mines in China, Pakistan and Ukraine that collectively killed nearly 200 miners.

In the past 20 years alone, U.S. coal mine explosions have claimed 92 lives, 54 of them in the Winter Alert months.

The worst coal mine explosion in U.S. history killed 362 coal miners in December 1907. The worst coal mine disasters in the past 50 years were the December 1951 Orient No. 2 mine explosion near West Frankfort, Ill., with 119 deaths, and the November 1968 Consol No. 9 Mine explosion near Farmington, W.Va., with 78 fatalities.

"It''s critical to double check your four lines of defense," McAteer said. These are:

  • Follow the mine''s approved ventilation plan;
  • Make thorough examinations for methane and other hazards;
  • Keep potential ignition sources out of working-face areas; and
  • Apply rock dust in all areas of the mine.

In winter months, large drops of barometric pressure can permit potentially explosive methane migrate from worked-out areas of an underground coal mine to areas where miners work or travel. This increases the risk that an explosive mixture of air and methane may come together with an ignition source, touching off an explosion.

Also in the winter, cold, dry air entering underground coal mines dries out coal dust, which becomes harder to control and may contribute to explosion hazards.

"All four lines of defense are essential, and there is one potential ignition source that we can completely eliminate from underground coal mines smoking materials," McAteer said. "Since 1990, three fatal explosions were caused by smoking materials. We want to remind coal mine operators that they must have adequate search programs to make sure no smoking materials are carried underground, ever. This is literally a matter of life and death."

McAteer noted that MSHA will place special emphasis on enforcement of ventilation requirements and smoking prohibition this year. In the past two years, MSHA has cited dozens of violations due to inadequate smoking-materials search programs.

This year''s Winter Alert slogan, "Someone''s Waiting for You at Home Work Safely," will be distributed to all underground coal operations in the form of posters and hard-hat stickers.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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