Miners' emergency air packs may be recalled
Nov 1, 2006
Dennis B. Roddy
W. Va. safety agency warns about failure of breathing units that have been exposed to heat
The state agency overseeing mine safety in West Virginia yesterday issued a warning that could result in the recall of potentially thousands of underground emergency breathing units because there is no way of knowing if they have been exposed to excessive heat.
Ron Wooten, director of the West Virginia Office of Miner Health Safety and Training, said early data from the first survey of self-contained rescuers at the state's coal mines revealed that 2,750 devices designed to supply an hour's worth of oxygen to trapped miners have no gauge or monitor that would show if they had been exposed to excessive heat that would render them useless.
That would amount to as much as one-fourth of the more than 10,000 air packs (known as self-contained self-rescuers) in use in the state.
The devices are damaged when kept in places such as hot automobiles or around heat-generating equipment. The notice advised miners to keep the units away from such things as hydraulic equipment, bulldozers and shower rooms.
The self-rescuers produce oxygen through a chemical reaction when they are activated. Excessive heat can cause the chemicals to degrade and cause the units to malfunction.
"SCSRs that are suspected by anyone of having been exposed to excessive temperature shall be withdrawn from service," Mr. Wooten said in a memo to the state's mine operators. "The safe care of SCSRs shall be emphasized in all future SCSR training."
Mr. Wooten's memorandum instructed mine operators to meet with employees to brief them on the safe handling and storage of the breathing devices.
The largest number of suspect SCSRs were 2,700 SR-100 models manufactured by Monroeville-based CSE prior to August 2004. They are the same model carried by miners who became stranded underground Jan. 2 at the Sago Mine after an explosion there. Twelve of the stranded miners died, and the lone survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., later complained that four of the units failed to function properly.
Later tests at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showed that the devices were capable of generating oxygen.
Mr. McCloy has since sued CSE.
The inventory also found 67 air packs made by Draeger Safety, based in Pittsburgh, that lacked temperature sensors and another 15 made by Ocenco Inc., a Wisconsin firm, that had been damaged by heat.
West Virginia data found that of 4,300 CSE SR-100s with temperature indicators, 63 had been removed from service because of indications they had been exposed to excessive temperatures. CSE is the only manufacturer to install a heat indicator on its rescuers. Of 3,600 other models, called the EBA-6.5, about 15 had been taken out of service for the same reason.
Yesterday's memo and summary of the air pack survey findings, also included lengthy rebuttals by CSE, whose president complained that the inspections, performed using testing equipment manufactured by a competitor, was flawed in some of its findings.
One major revelation of the statewide inventory -- which came after OMHST discovered some of its own inspectors were carrying heat-damaged units -- was that some safety inspectors had ignored CSE's own warnings about keeping the units clear of excessive heat.
Scott Shearer, CSE president, noted this in his written response to the report.
"CSE relies on the operators and federal and state mine inspectors to assist the miners in identifying and removing damaged units in accordance with manufacturer inspections," Mr. Shearer wrote. "When OMHST ignores manufacturer warnings on temperature and physical damage resulting in carrying units that are so obviously damaged into mines, OMHST sends the wrong message to the industry."
Mr. Shearer also noted that CSE has incorporated a gauge in its models made since 2004 that shows when it has been exposed to too much heat