Physicist Recommends Psychology Research to Improve Mine Safety

April 13, 2010
Following the April 5 Massey Energy mine disaster, which killed 29 miners and put a spotlight on the current state of coal mine safety in the United States, the American Psychological Association (APA) held a Q&A session with a physicist to discuss how human factors science can improve mine safety.

“Now is the time to make some major changes in the safety of mining,” said Steve Shope, Ph.D. “The integration of human systems into the mining industry is a great example where major safety improvements can be made in the industry.”

Shope, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, worked in the U.S. Bureau of Mines trapped-miner research program as in-house senior engineer and technical project officer for external research contracts in the 1980s. He also was the Bureau of Mines technical representative to the Mine Safety and Health Administration Seismic Location System.

For the last 2 years, Shope has volunteered his time to work with APA’s Science Government Relations staff to advocate for the value of behavioral research as it applies to mine safety in hopes that Congress will fund a comprehensive study of mine safety issues at the National Academy of Sciences.

A Self-Sufficient Community

Shope told APA that while the mining industry has a strong culture of community, it is also a culture of self-sufficiency. Therefore, he explained, “there is not a lot of intermingling of outside cultures and technologies into the mining industry.”

Shope pointed to Human Systems Integration (HSI), a growing field of science that determines how humans and complex systems can be better integrated, as a way to address this problem. According to Shope, this field encompasses human factors training, command and control, decision making, fatigue, teamwork and ergonomics.

“Human factors is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system,” he explained. “It is my feeling the integration of HSI research and methodologies can make a tremendous improvement in mine safety and mine efficiencies.”

Shope said HSI could bolster mine safety through improved training, including the design of training, measuring training effectiveness, measuring training retention, tailoring training to the individual and teaching effective decision-making.

HSI research also could be applied to the human factors of equipment. For example, Shope said that the Self-Contained Self-Rescuer (SCSR), a portable breathing apparatus commonly used in mining, “is a prime example of equipment being poorly designed from a human factors standpoint.”

“We’ve seen in several recent disasters where only about 25 percent of the units were successfully activated,” Shope said. “These units must be designed to easily be activated during times of limited visibility, stress and poor environmental conditions. These data point to both poor training and poor SCSR design. However, training should never be a crutch for poor equipment design.”

The MSHA Conflict

Shope added that he sees a conflict with MSHA acting as both a regulatory/enforcement body and as an accident/disaster investigative body. He used the aviation industry as an example of a different kind of system – the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the regulatory and enforcement body, while the National Transportation Safety Board operates independently as the accident investigation entity.

“Often, certain regulations and/or regulatory practices can contribute to an accident or disaster,” he said. “If one compares the official MSHA report on the Sago disaster to the independent report commissioned by Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, we see a much less biased analysis of the accident.”

Finally, Shope pointed out that survivors of disasters like coal mine explosions may suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Interviewing these survivors therefore requires special skills.

“Two survivors of the Sago disaster committed suicide – it was reported that the investigators made them feel responsible for the deaths of their fellow miners,” Shope said.

The American Psychological Association is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists.

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