By Juliet A. Terry
West Virginia coal mines are set to begin installing underground refuge chambers in the coming months even though the federal government has yet to begin testing the shelters.
Plans are moving forward for full compliance with new mine safety laws requiring underground shelters in the Mountain State. None of the approved models has been used in coal mines before nor has any undergone practical environment testing using human test subjects. But engineers have signed off on the specifications and anticipated performance for each shelter.
The United Mine Workers of America supports moving forward, but the labor union’s top health and safety administrator said the group’s posture is based on information it has gotten from others.
“We’re going forward based on what everyone else has told us,” said Dennis O’Dell, administrator of the UMWA Department of Occupational Health and Safety. “Based on the information we were presented, we believe these will protect miners. If, in fact, there is a serious question about whether these actually will increase the health and safety of miners or possibly be dangerous, then they should stop and do additional testing.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is finalizing its protocol for testing refuge chambers at its Lake Lynn underground coal mine research laboratory.
Once the testing can begin, NIOSH scientists expect it will take about one week per unit, although many West Virginia coal mines already have placed orders for refuge chambers because of deadlines established in new mine safety rules.
The draft research protocol has been circulated among scientists and stakeholders, such as the West Virginia Mine Safety Technology Task Force, the UMWA and the National Mining Association.
“We asked them to have their comments in by June 8 ... and early next week, we’ll work our way through the changes. We hope to have the final protocol done by the end of next week,” said Dr. Eric Bauer, senior mining engineer at NIOSH.
The protocol details a 96-hour test during which NIOSH will measure the interior atmosphere of each refuge chamber.
“We will be testing the breathable atmosphere, whether these units are capable of creating a breathable environment for 96 hours,” Bauer said. “That includes CO2 scrubbing, (oxygen) and heat and humidity.”
West Virginia law requires that all approved shelters be able to sustain life for 96 hours. Bauer said NIOSH can simulate human occupancy in the shelters to determine how factors such as metabolic heat production affect the interior atmosphere. Scientists also will measure heat transfer through shelter walls.
Possible Human Testing
NIOSH also is working on a protocol for human testing, according to Dr. Jeffrey Kohler, director for mine safety and health research at NIOSH.
“For the last three to four weeks, we’ve have a team look at developing a protocol for human tests — a pulmonary physician, a general physician, psychologist, physiologist, engineers and other scientists — to determine the value of human subject testing versus a simulation,” Kohler said.
Even though many individuals such as O’Dell have stepped forward and volunteered to be test subjects, Kohler said NIOSH must comply with strict federal regulations controlling human testing. A private company that does not have federal funding would not have that hurdle, he said, but NIOSH does.
O’Dell said he fully supports additional mine shelter testing.
“If they want to do it, they’ve got plenty of volunteers out there,” he said. “If that’s necessary, and if it means a delay (in implementation) to afford the best protection for our miners, then that’s what we need to do.”
O’Dell said he also would not oppose a delay in West Virginia’s timeline to wait for NIOSH to finish its first round of testing.
“A month of additional tests would be a whole lot better than sticking these things underground and finding out they’re going to fail,” he said. “Everyone seems satisfied to move forward, but if there are experts out there who believe there is a problem, they need to step up to the plate and tell us. ... We don’t want to put the health and safety of miners at risk.”