Wireless Communication for Mine Rescue a Hot Topic on the Hill

Mine safety wireless communication and tracking devices have been causing a big stir in Washington this week, as Capitol Hill lawmakers perused through an assortment of text-messaging systems and tracking devices during a Feb. 15 hearing.

MSHA which was absent from the hearing participated in its own evaluation of existing wireless communication devices at a symposium held in Virginia earlier this week.

During the symposium, MSHA personnel discussed a variety of portable communication devices the agency currently allows to be used in coal mines. According to the agency, telephones and signaling devices must be permissible or intrinsically safe and contain a backup power supply in order to be approved by MSHA for use in coal mines.

"MSHA is pursuing promising wireless technologies to help ensure safe working environments for miners and improve rescue teams' abilities to locate them should an accident occur," said David Dye, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.

Are Current Technologies Safe Enough?

Meanwhile back at Capitol Hill, lawmakers, safety equipment manufacturers and trade organizations debated whether the current technologies and equipment are enough to ensure the safety of miners.

Bruce Watzman from the National Mining Association said he would like to see an increase in funding on research and development of mine safety equipment.

Safety manufacturers in attendance such as CSE Corp. and Mine Site Technologies agreed and added that there should be more regulations clarifying what new technology should be used.

While not in attendance at the hearing, Lynn Feiner from North Safety Products USA a manufacturer of safety equipment for various industries including mining agreed that North Safety Products always is open to the idea of expanding its product line as the company wants to provide the most up-to-date and reliable safety equipment for miners.

"If they put into place new requirements of design of oxygen masks, for example, we would do it as we want our designs to meet those standards," she told OccupationalHazards.com.

The Oxygen Tank Debate

In addition to wireless technologies and tracking devices, lawmakers looked at the 1-hour oxygen packs and agreed that there should be regulations put into place to require operators to store extra oxygen in mines or have them give miners longer-lasting packs.

"An hour just seems like such a short amount of time," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Sen. Johnny Isakson R-Ga., who chaired the hearing, called the roundtable discussion a "positive first step in the process of determining how to make mines safer and promised to continue to explore the issue."

"We learned today about the safety technologies that exist, the ones we hope will be developed in the future and the mechanisms to put these technologies into place to make mine safety in the United States better," Isakson said.

Mine Safety Hearing Slated for March

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, on which Isakson serves, plans to hold an oversight hearing in March into mine safety procedures and enforcement measures related to the Sago Mine tragedy.

The committee did not invite MSHA to its Feb. 15 hearing, as members wanted to focus their attention on wireless devices this time around. However, the committee plans to invite the agency to the March hearing, according to a spokesperson from the HELP Committee.

MSHA, on its end, currently is surveying underground mines around the United States to determine if a personal emergency device is effective. The agency also is sending technical experts to Australia this month to evaluate the effectiveness of the PED and tracker devices in operation in that country. PEDs largely have been criticized, as they only allow for one-way communication.

The agency said it is working with partner organizations to develop wireless technology that would permit two-way communication.

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