Feature

Mine Safety
A Veteran's Perspective

IDAHO SPRINGS – It’s 8 a.m. at the Edgar Experimental Mine, and 500 feet below ground, two miners are praying for a rescue. Moments earlier, in a narrow spur known as “B Right,” the roof collapsed, producing a cloud of gaseous dust that quickly collided with a stray spark from an electrical panel. As the mine filled with smoke, all but three made it out without injury.

Now, with one miner unconscious and two others barricaded behind treated canvas curtains to avoid the toxic gas advancing toward them, the rescue team faces a series of tactical decisions: How will they assure the roof is safe, and if it’s not, stabilize it? How will they protect themselves from the escalating levels of carbon monoxide? And if they get to the miners and they are unconscious, how will the team get them out safely?

“Sometimes when these things happen, people panic and forget their training,” observes Bob Ferriter ’60, MS ’73, as  he hovers over five nervous-looking students navigating a vivid computer simulation of the fictional mine rescue. “There are a lot of things to remember to keep a rescue team safe. You have to really drill this stuff into them.”

For more than a decade, Ferriter has done just that, running Colorado School of Mines’ one-of-a-kind Mine Safety and Health Program, which aims to help workers prevent accidents from occurring and train rescue teams for when they do.

After today’s computer simulation, the students will reenact the exercise in the school’s Edgar Mines, each donning a 40-pund self-contained breathing apparatus, rappelling down a 200-foot air shaft, and navigating real smoke and fallen rubble to retrieve the three “Rescue Randy” dummies planted deep inside Edgar’s labyrinth of tunnels.

Ferriter, a spry 73-year-old with a bald head and a sometimes-sharp tongue, will be there every step of the way, motivated by decades of first-hand experience with mining operations gone wrong.

"So much of it is needless," he says. "People take shortcuts, or have faulty equipment, or aren't trained properly. The more you see, the more hard-nosed you get."

Ferriter launched the Mine Safety and Health Training Program in 1999 after spending 27 years with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). There, he traveled the country, sifting through the rubble at mine accident sites to determine what went wrong and how to keep it from recurring. Now, at a time when he sees safety standards slipping due to corporate negligence and gaps in federal oversight, he's dedicating the final years of his career to helping develop what he sees as a much-needed "culture of safety."

"Just look at the number of accidents in the last four years. What's the matter?" he says, shaking his head as he rattles off the names: Sago, Crandall Canyon, Upper Big Branch. "We're not progressing to protect the miner. In too many ways we are regressing."

A history of progress

Make no mistake; much progress has been made over the last century. In 1931, mining fatalities in the U.S. totaled 1,688; in 2009, 31 people died. Improved safety is largely thanks to tougher regulation, Ferriter points out, but each step forward came in the wake of tragedy.

In 1907, 20 mine disasters took an appalling 3,242 lives, prompting the establishment of the Bureau of Mines and a federal investigation into what was causing the carnage. A significant culprit was buildup of methane gas mixed with coal dust that would collide with stray sparks from equipment and launch massive explosions, killing hundreds at a time. Today, coal mine operators are required to test for methane, suppress dust, and encase electrical connections in flameproof metal boxes.

In 1968, after an explosion in a Farmington, W.Va, mine killed 78, Congress passed the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act, which authorized federal inspectors to go into mines.

In 1972, a fire at the Sunshine Silver Mine in Kellogg, Idaho, killed 91 people, most succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to escape. A few years later, lawmakers authorized regulators to not only offer advice, but to issue citations, close down mines completely, and criminally prosecute willful violators.

Nonetheless, the coal mining industry has remained a deadly one. During his time with MSHA, Ferriter investigated dozens of fatal accidents, including one that took the life of a nine-year-old boy and his dog, both buried under a crumbling wall of rock outside the mine as the boy's mother stood by, helpless.

"You'd hear the same excuses from the operators all the time: that they have to make a profit," he says. "I'd tell them 'I'd rather see 40 miners out of work than 40 miners dead." I've put too many men in body bags not to take safety seriously."

Perhaps the most frustrating incident in recent memory occurred on April 5, 2010, when 29 died in a massive methane explosion at Massey Energy's Big Branch coal mine - the deadliest coal mine disaster in more than 40 years. The air was so contaminated with toxic and explosive gases that it was nearly three months before MSHA teams were permitted to begin their investigation inside the mine.

In the meantime, Ferriter vocally condemned the mine's operators for what he sees as a preventable tragedy.

According to MSHA records, Massey had been cited repeatedly for problems: 188 citations in 2008 for 395,168 man hours worked, and 458 in 2009 for 482,000 hours worked. At least 48 of the 2009 citations were considered "unwarrantable failures" - a term reserved for cases of gross negligence or willful misconduct, which can lead to criminal prosecution.

Pointing to the statistics - a 20 percent increase in man hours corresponding to a 240 percent increase in the number of violations - Ferriter told National Public Radio, "That tells me they got kind of sloppy - To get that many violations in a slight increase in the number of man hours worked, you're letting a lot of things go."

He also notes that roughly 40 percent of the mine's violations involved its ventilation system and dust control techniques: "If 40 percent of your violations are for the same deficiency, sooner or later it's going to catch up with you," says Ferriter. "Why didn't MSHA shut them down? I can't say. They have the authority to shut down unsafe mining operations."

In 2007, shortly after six were crushed during a collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, Ferriter faced off against mine operator Robert Murray on National Public Radio, dismissing Murray's claim that an earthquake caused the disaster.

"I would discount the earthquake theory entirely," Ferriter told NPR's Jeff Brady, after Murray abruptly ended the interview when pressed to explain his theory.

When asked about the incident for this story, Ferriter was more direct: "He was flatly taking too much coal out and putting too much pressure on the remaining pillars. The engineers who designed the plan should have recognized this. There are reliable computer simulations to estimate these loads," he points out, adding that MSHA should have caught this error: "They never should have approved the pillar extraction plan - that's really rolling the dice."

Along with reckless operators, bad engineering and poor oversight, insufficient training can also be fatal, Ferriter explains. In the wake of the heartbreaking deaths of 12 miners after an underground explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia in 2006, incident reports suggested the trapped miners may not have known how to use the oxygen-generating self-rescue devices which might have bought them valuable time as the concentration of toxic gases rose around them. And then when they built a barricade to protect themselves from the gas, they built it incorrectly.

Moving the dial forward
What should be changed? Ferriter believes existing laws are solid and that most operators are diligent about following them. "It's a small minority who are playing a game of 'catch me if you can' with MSHA," he says. He'd like to see the federal government crack down on these 'rogue operators' and to criminally prosecute cases of gross negligence.

He also thinks the coal industry could do a better job of policing their own - promoting safe practices industry-wide by responding when an operator starts racking up citations: "If things don't change and Congress gets involved, everyone will get painted with the same brush - laws can't be written for a few bad actors." *

As for Ferriter and others at the school's Mine Health and Safety Training Program, they are certainly doing their part. In the past year, they have developed a new mine rescue computer simulation program, established a new course for experienced miners wishing to become safety experts, and authored a soon-to-be-published report on the true costs of mine accidents.


They also continue to train contractors and new miners nationwide. "It's one thing to sit through a PowerPoint. It's another thing to do lifelike exercises with investigators from some of the worst mining tragedies in our history," notes Kiowa Moore, a manager with fire suppression company Simplex-Grinelle, who has gone through classes with Ferriter several times. "The instructors' depth of experience is unsurpassed. It brings a real sense of reality to it all."

Shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, Ferriter got a cryptic phone call from someone with the U.S. military, asking if he could provide mine rescue training to U.S. soldiers. When Ferriter asked what kind of mine or underground environment the soldiers might use such training in, the caller wouldn't say. "At first I thought it was a crank call," says Ferriter.

Since then, team after team of soldiers has arrived to learn the nuances of underground search-and-rescue. "I don't know where they might be deployed and I don't need to know," he says. He does note that the skills they learn could easily be applied in case of fire or terrorist attacks in a subway system or collapsed structures.

On a recent afternoon at the Edgar Mine, members of the U.S. Army 911th Technical Rescue Engineer Company (the same company that rescued government officials from the Pentagon on Sept. 11) stood in a wet, dark and smoky cavern 600 feet underground, erecting a mock barricade to create a pocket of fresh air.

Meanwhile, a group outside learned how to operate and repair a breathing apparatus that could keep them alive for four hours as they searched for victims.

"Professional miners come up with a lot of creative ways to assure they can survive a collapse," says Lt. Daniel S. Walk, a course participant. "This is the only kind of training that allows us to learn these techniques inside an actual mine."

After decades of crawling around beneath the ground, having trained hundreds and impacted thousands, Ferriter says he is deeply proud of what he's accomplished. But retirement is beckoning. He recently handed over the reins of the center to its new director, Janet Torma-Karjaewski.

"I figure in the next year or two, I'll call it a career," he says, walking the final hundred yards toward the bright light of outdoors after a day of underground training. He clicks off his headlamp, removes his dusty white helmet, and adds:

"I've got six grandkids and my wife's got a honey-do list that'll take me at least 10 years to complete. I'll have plenty to do."

* Shortly before going to press, Mines magazine learned that the U.S. House of Representatives has drafted new, tougher regulatory requirements in the Miner Health and Safety Act of 2010 that is receiving bipartisan support. 

HTML Comment Box is loading comments...