Trying to pass the tragedy off as something “that happens” in the coal mining sector, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to similar tragedies in the 1800s and early 1900s. The families and friends of the fallen miners were having none of it. They knew better; everyone should know better. What happened at that mine is also a stark reminder for all of us just how much the mining industry has improved in most parts of the world. Sadly, those with no mining affiliation see it as another coal-related tragedy, and his century’s old reference would lead an uninformed person to believe that the coal business has made no significant improvement.
The truth is that the mining business, especially in the U.S., has been continuously improving. The technology available to today’s modern underground coal miner is amazing. This month’s cover story about proximity detection is just another example. Who would have ever thought that we would have machines that could communicate with each other? The system uses that information to allow different pieces of equipment to interact safely with each other and the miners. If anyone steps into the danger zone, it shuts the equipment down. The story talks about one mine and one system, while many mines are currently testing several systems.
Technology has played a vital role with continuous improvement. Much of the technology in use today has improved significantly in the last three to five years. Automation with mechanized mining does not seem as far-fetched as it once did. The other side of the coin is that the machines are tracking what the miners are doing. The miners know they are tracking what they are doing. Bad behavior in the form of risk taking is not being allowed by the machines.
The industry is also motivated by the more stringent regulations. The Mine Safety and Health Administration announced new dust standards. The coal industry knew this was coming, but it still caught many by surprise. The compliance thresholds are not quite as low as mining companies feared, but they are significant. The mines that have the best ventilation plans should comply and the others will have to improve.
When the agency implemented its policy on communications and tracking, coal operators were griping about the lack of clarity and the cost. Today, most mines have modern communications systems and they have found that they not only improved safety, but they also improved productivity.
Yes, the U.S. coal industry has made great strides and it is most evident in the wake of the Soma tragedy. Look into the eyes of those Turkish miners and you will see men who are envious of the technology and regulations we have in the U.S. It’s a shame that these tragedies still occur, but at least they are happening less frequently.