By Robert H. Peters and Carin Kosmoski, Ph.D

What is self-escape competence? Webster’s dictionary defines competence as “having sufficient knowledge, judgment, skills, or strength for a particular duty.” Ennis (2008) defines competence as “the capability of applying or using knowledge, skills, abilities, behaviors, and personal characteristics to successfully perform critical work tasks, specific functions, or operate in a given role or position. Personal characteristics may be mental/intellectual/cognitive, social/emotional/attitudinal, and physical/psychomotor attributes necessary to perform the job.” We refer to the knowledge, skills and abilities miners need to have in order to evacuate from their mine quickly and safely as self-escape competencies. It is very important that every coal miner is capable of independently getting out of the mine in an emergency.

Why are miners’ self-escape competencies so important? In the aftermath of mine emergencies, time is of the essence. The longer it takes for miners to exit the mine, the lower their chances of survival (Galvin 2008). For various reasons, it often takes many hours for mine rescue teams to locate and extricate miners from underground work areas. If miners must wait for rescue teams to reach them, it is often too late. Over the years, several miners, such as those involved in the Sago and Darby mine explosions, have survived an initial disaster but perished before they could escape or be rescued (Gates et al. 2007; Light et al. 2007). As part of a recent study by Ounanian (2007), U.S. coal mining accidents from 1970 to 2006 were reviewed. The review identified 37 events during this time period in which at least one miner was killed by an ignition, explosion, fire or inundation. Of the 252 fatalities caused by these events, 67 miners died while attempting to escape, and another 17 died after deciding to barricade and wait for rescuers. In other words, one-third of the 252 victims survived the initial event, but died before they could escape or be rescued.

Since the coal mine disasters of 2006, several groups of mine safety experts have published reports that identify significant gaps and deficiencies in miners’ emergency response training (Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission 2006; West Virginia Mine Safety Technology Task Force 2006; McAteer et al. 2006a, 2006b; GAO 2007). These experts recommended several significant improvements to the content and methods of escape training, as well as the evaluation of miners’ self-escape competencies.

How can we assess whether coal miners possess sufficient competence in self-escape? It can be difficult to accurately determine if miners’ self-escape competencies are sufficient or in need of improvement. The following list of questions illustrates some of the steps involved in determining if miners are sufficiently prepared to self-escape:

  1. Have all possible emergency escape scenarios been identified?
  2.  Have task analyses been conducted to determine all of the types of actions that miners might need to take or judgments they might need to make in order to successfully escape from these scenarios?
  3. Have all the self-escape competencies necessary to perform these actions and judgments been identified?
  4. Have effective instructional materials and methods been developed to teach these self-escape competencies?
  5. Have valid and feasible methods been developed for assessing whether each individual miner has mastered these self-escape competencies?
  6. Have knowledgeable personnel been assigned to assess miners’ self-escape competencies and provide remediation as needed?

Over the years, mine safety and training professionals have devoted a significant amount of effort into addressing the first four questions. It is vital that miners be prepared to escape from all types of contingencies. NIOSH researchers are attempting to compile a comprehensive list of self-escape competencies. They have reviewed mine safety training regulations and the available literature on self-escape competencies, and solicited input on this topic from many mine safety and training experts over the past few years.

A list of the self-escape competencies have been compiled. A variety of good instructional materials and methods for teaching most self-escape competencies are now available from NIOSH, the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, and various MSHA state grants recipients (e.g., see Radomsky et al. 2009) “Escape & Evacuation: A Miners’ Education and Training Toolbox”. The best way to escape from a coal mine varies with characteristics of each particular mine and the sections and resources within that mine. Therefore, escape training plans need to be tailored to fit the site-specific parameters of each mine.

Unfortunately, not as much headway has been made on addressing questions 5 and 6 (i.e., on the assessment of miners’ self-escape competencies). With the exception of SCSR donning, individual-level evaluations of coal miners’ self-escape competencies are not commonly performed. U.S. mine safety regulations require that mine safety trainers make an effort to evaluate the effectiveness of their training. Trainers sometimes do this by administering a short anonymous quiz or by holding a short Q&A session following their presentations of safety information. For a variety of reasons, most trainers do not typically collect information about an individual miner’s competencies. Therefore, it is often unknown whether all miners are sufficiently prepared to self-escape.

Assessment Techniques
Multiple methods are needed for assessing self-escape competencies. The coal mining population presents many challenges, including a wide age range, limited time for testing, and variations in literacy levels. Trainers should be mindful of testing each individual in a way that is doable for him or her while still maintaining a standard of each miner performing the skill without help.

For a robust training experience, trainers should be prepared to use a variety of methods for both teaching and assessing emergency response skills. Research on adult learning suggests that individual learning styles (and therefore the most effective way to present new information) vary quite a bit from person to person. Individual students have individual ways of learning. For example, some people learn and retain information better when it is presented visually, while others learn better through listening. Motor skills, such as operating a refuge chamber or donning an SCSR, are usually best acquired through demonstrations and hands-on practice.

Just as different people learn better through different teaching methods, different competency assessment methods work better for assessing different people or different skills. Trainers should not solely rely on one evaluation method such as written tests for assessing mine emergency response competencies. For various reasons (e.g., test-taking anxiety or low literacy), some people have trouble performing well on written tests—even though they may be capable of performing appropriately during an emergency. Alternatives to written exams can include oral question and answer sessions, simulations, and hands-on demonstrations by the trainee. The best method(s) of assessing competencies and conducting remedial instruction will vary depending upon characteristics of the individual miner, and upon the particular type of knowledge, skill or ability needed for a particular emergency. For an example of how multiple techniques could be used to assess a miner’s ability to recognize mine lifeline tactile shapes, see Coal Age, September 2011, p. 40.

The primary purpose of self-escape competencies assessment is to identify the specific knowledge, skills and abilities miners have not yet mastered, and to provide them with enough remedial training to enable them to escape if escape is humanly possible. The best way to establish that every miner possesses the necessary emergency response knowledge, skills and abilities is by periodically assessing each individual’s self-escape competencies, and—for those who have deficiencies—providing as much remedial instruction and/or opportunities for practice as is necessary to make them competent. Fortunately, mine emergencies do not happen very often. However, knowledge and skills that are rarely used or needed tend to be forgotten. It is important that self-escape knowledge, skills and abilities be assessed on a regular basis. Admittedly, such a system of assessment and remediation will require more ingenuity and effort on the part of our nation’s mine safety trainers. However, given the tragic history of failed attempts by coal miners to escape from mine emergencies, such efforts are warranted.

The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Mentioning any company or product does not constitute endorsement by NIOSH.

About the Authors
Robert Peters is a manager in the Office of Mine Safety and Health Research at NIOSH. He can be reached at or 412-386-6895. Dr. Carin Kosmoski is a health communications research fellow in the Office of Mine Safety and Health Research at NIOSH. She can be reached at or 412-386-6649.

Ennis M [2008]. Competency Models: A Review of the Literature and the Role of the Employment and Training Administration (ETA). Employment and Training Administration, U. S. Department of Labor.

Galvin JM [2008]. Review of best practices for escape and rescue from underground coal mines in Australia. Galvin and Associates Pty Ltd, St Ives NSW, Australia: CDC contract no. 200-2008-M-24524 for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Pittsburgh Research Laboratory.

GAO [2007]. Mine safety: better oversight and coordination by MSHA and other federal agencies could improve safety for underground coal miners. Report GAO-07-622. Washington, DC: U.S. General Accountability Office.  Available at: []

Gates RA, Phillips RL, Urosek JE, Stephan CR, Stoltz RT, Swentosky DJ, Harris GW, O’Donnell JR, Dresch RA [2007]. Report of investigation, fatal underground coal mine explosion, January 2, 2006. Sago Mine, Wolf Run Mining Company, Tallmansville, Upshur County, West Virginia, ID No. 46-08791. Arlington, VA: U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Kingsley Westerman C, Peters R [2011]. Improved Recognition of Lifeline Tactile Signals by Miners. Published in Coal Age, Sept., pp. 40-43.

Light TE, Herndon RC, Guley AR, Cook GL, Odum MA, Bates RM, Schroeder ME, Campbell CD, Pruitt ME [2007]. Report of investigation, fatal underground coal mine explosion, May 20, 2006. Darby No. 1 Mine, Kentucky Darby LLC, Holmes Mill, Harlan County, Kentucky, ID No. 15-18185. Arlington, VA: U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration.

McAteer JD, Bethell TN, Monforton C, Pavlovich JW, Roberts D, Spence B [2006a]. The Sago Mine Disaster: A preliminary report to Governor Joe Manchin III. available at: and

McAteer JD, Bethell TN, Monforton C, Pavlovich JW, Roberts D, Spence B [2006b]. The Fire at Aracoma Alma Mine #1: A preliminary report to Governor Joe Manchin III. available at: and

Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission [2006]. “Improving Mine Safety Technology and Training: Establishing US Global Leadership”. December 2006.

Ounanion D [2007]. “Refuge Alternatives in Underground Coal Mines”. Phase I Report NSH-080020-1839, Foster-Miller Inc., NIOSH Contract Number 200-2007-20276, Pittsburgh, PA

Radomsky M, Flick J, DeSalvo J, Grayson L, Ramani R [2009]. Escape & Evacuation: A Miners’ Education and Training Toolbox. Instructors’ Handbook. Developed by the Penn State University Miner Training Program through funding from Dept. of Labor MSHA Grant # BS-17826-08-60-R-42

West Virginia Mine Safety Technology Task Force [2006]. Mine safety recommendations: report to the Director of the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training: as required by West Virginia Code §56-4-4.  Available at: [ Report Final.pdf]