Despite mining’s inherent risks, most training far too often consists of boring classroom exercises, endless tired videos and canned presentations. Once folks graduate to become apprentice miners, what are they really ready for? How much on the job training do they receive afterward? And just because they are trained “right,” will attention to details and regulations continue long after the boss is away? Or will the temptation to produce more and bend the rules remain instead? Of chief concern for any mine safety director has to be how they can instill in their crews positive workforce habits in response to increasingly stringent regulations and evolving safety standards.

A Dedication to Training with Safety in Mind

A small, Central Appalachian independent company, Coal River Energy (CRE) produces several million tons from a variety of high quality steam coals. It has 350 direct employees and an additional 75 contractors. Most of these workers act as operators in one of CRE’s three underground mines or two surface operations. The company mines from a three-section slope mine, Ford Creek No. 1, which employs 170. The company’s newest operation, the No. 10 drift mine began producing in 2010. As they ramp up, the completely new multi-section facility will eventually staff up to 150 people. Rounding out the deep operations is the Ford Creek No 3, which is a single section mine. Ford Creek No. 1 mine produces from the No. 2 gas seam and maintains a height of 5.5 to 6.5 ft. The other two mines produce from the 10- to 14-ft thick Stockton seam. The impact of hazards can multiply with increased mining height.

Unlike many similar smaller independent operations, CRE has a 15-person mine rescue team. “In recent contests, we finished fourth in West Virginia and 10th overall nationwide for small operations,” said Terry Chapman, director of safety, CRE.

CRE normally hires between 12 to 14 apprentice coal miners, or “red hats,” a year for its underground operations, though as it staffed recently for Mine No 10, they hired more newly minted miners. “We have had hired as many as 28 red hats per year. At Ford Creek No. 1, all of Coal River’s third shift employees were hired as red hats. Overall, we probably employ more red hats here than other similar operations in the area,” said Chapman.

To better prepare its miners, CRE conducts training in house at their new training facility. Chapman and CRE’s senior staff actually sit down with each new hire for at least four hours and go over all of the mine maps, plans, safety guidelines, routes for emergency responders, life support caches and the mine’s formal emergency evacuation plan. Once a red hat comes on property for their first shift following their 80 hours of training, Chapman and other senior staff sit down with them for another eight hours of classroom training. “We initially work to refresh their memory of all the aspects of mining that they just had in class and explain to them how they specifically apply here. Following this, we give them an eight-hour mine tour so they see all of the operations,” said Chapman.

After a red hat has worked for a few days, Chapman will sit down and ask them about how they are adjusting to the new work environment. “I will ask them ‘how do you feel about it? Are you comfortable?’ I’ll also ask the supervisors how that individual is doing. We don’t just place them in the work force and forget about them. We ensure we actually communicate with our new hires and try to ascertain how they feel about the job itself.”

Chapman is proud of the success CRE has had with its red hat program. “I’ve seen people get hurt in the mines because they simply didn’t know what to do. I’ve seen people come into the mines and they were told where to go and what to do without having any ideas where the escape-ways were located. They just rode in on a man bus and started doing whatever jobs they were assigned. Here at Coal River, we want our employees to be comfortable and know how to do their job right from day one. It doesn’t matter if it takes them five times longer to do a specific task at first because as someone progresses, they’ll learn how to perform properly and safely. If you train these guys right the first time, they’ll have the opportunity to always work right,” said Chapman.

While conducting training in-house, CRE uses a variety of hands-on activities and videos made on property.  “We don’t use generic videos, we use our own photos and videos so crews can see their own co-workers, crews and buddies on screen,” Chapman said. “The examples seem less remote.”

If Chapman or other senior staff see new employees doing anything wrong, they work with them to re-consider what actions they’re taking and the consequences these actions might have. “We try to take that person aside and say ‘hey, I want you to think about what you just did. It really does affect your world, your wife and kids. If you get hurt, do you really want to put that burden on them?’ We try to get them to understand that we’re not trying to do this for us. We’re not trying to harp on them because of something we want, but because of what it might cost them in the end. Our goal is to get you underground, teach you how to make a living and get home safely every day. If you cheat, or if you find ways to accelerate certain processes, well maybe you’re successful that one time. But the more chances you take, eventually the more likely you are to get hurt. Everyone’s number will come up. Like Russian roulette, there are only so many empty chambers in that gun,” said Chapman.

EMT & Advanced Medical Training

Of 350 employees, Coal River has 62 EMTs in its workforce.  “We have a paramedic who lives only 5 minutes away. In case of an accident, it’s likely he would be on site before an ambulance even got on the property. When we do our EMT training we actually fly HealthNet Aeromedical Services helicopters in so personnel can learn the proper procedure of how to approach the helicopter and lock and load an injured person in place for safe transport out,” said Chapman.

CRE encourages all its staff to train as EMTs. “We make training as convenient as possible for anyone on any shift. If you’re working third shift, we can start the three-hour class at 9:00 a.m. so the employee can get home and return the next day fully rested. We also have a class that starts at noon and goes to 3:00 p.m. for second shift workers. We also have a class that starts at 4:00 p.m. and lasts until 8:00 p.m. We can cover all three shifts. We don’t schedule those classes every day. It works out better to hold them three days a week so folks can study and practice in between classroom sessions,” said Chapman.

Expectation Training Means Being Prepared For When Disaster Strikes

Using new CSE SR-MP-5T five-minute units, Coal River Energy’s coal miners were among the first in West Virginia to receive “expectation training” designed to more realistically prepare each miner for what they might really face if a disaster were to strike. Once the training unit is deployed, it simulates the real SR 100 model by getting hot and providing the chemical tasting air that miners have to breathe as they walk out in a real situation.

“For years and years we have trained guys about how to don an SCSR underground, but largely because of the cost of deploying a one-time use SCSR, rarely did those employees really know what it would be like to wear a unit and feel what it’s like to breathe the hot chemical tasting air they produce.  Our sister mine at the time, Kanawah Eagle [now operated by Patriot Energy] and ourselves bought a large number of these units and deployed them. First we had our crews just put them on and walk around our parking lot and uphill. It was amazing the feedback we got. Then we had our crews walk through a smoky, maze-like obstacle-filled environment designed to mimic what they might have to go through in a real disaster,” said Chapman.

Several times following expectation training, miners have said they were unable to function in those conditions. “But after several rounds, our crews have gotten used to doing it. However, what if they hadn’t undergone the training? In a situation where you have to deploy your rescuers, it’s almost instinctive to jerk the breathers out of your mouth. But if you do that, you die,” said Chapman.

To further enhance training, CRE has purchased several fire units that help simulate smoke conditions underground. “When we have a fire drill, we smoke an entry. As crews walk out of the mine, they hit a wall of smoke and they have to reach out for the lifeline in total darkness. In case of an emergency, it’s imperative our men know how to safely exit from a chaotic environment filled with the smoke and hot air. In that situation, all you have is your sense of touch. You’re like a blind person. If a person wears glasses, they have to be removed in order to put on safety goggles. After you put on your SCSR, in that situation, with all of the stress and fear, your breathing rate accelerates as your body goes into flight or fight mode,” said Chapman.

“If you have a guy who walks his way out of the mine every few months, he’ll know which direction to go. You have to become familiar with your environment and be prepared to evacuate the mine under your own power if disaster strikes. At Sago, the men were trapped in total darkness. With none of the now mandated lifelines, they had virtually no way to find their way out. We realized afterward it was up to us to really prepare our guys how to maneuver through and around smoke. While it’s true that once you get ahold of that lifeline, you might only travel at 5 feet per minute, at least you are going in the right direction.”

Disaster Drills

Mine rescue field exercises are not even remotely similar to what a real event or response would be like underground. Prior to the nearby Upper Big Branch disaster in April 2010, with the assistance of the Mine Academy at Southern West Virginia Community & Technical College in Logan, CRE conducted a disaster simulation underground complete with emergency response helicopters.

“We created a situation where we had a roof fall on the guy’s leg and we had to get the rock off of it. As part of the exercise, miners were told the leg was bleeding so badly we were going to have to amputate. We patched into our phone lines to an Emergency Room doctor at Logan General Hospital who provided step-by-step directions to our mine rescue personnel about how to do the amputation and stabilization procedures. Now, could that happen? Absolutely. If you have your guys prepared to be able to sit and talk to your EMT on your mine rescue team on what you’ve got to do and how you’ve got to do it, that’s pretty big.”

However, no matter the level of training, there is always room for more instruction and growth. “I was a safety director here for three or four years but I never knew how, if I did have a fire, would we be prepared to extinguish it. I thought we were just supposed to spray water on it. Prior to receiving advanced training on firefighting at MSHA’s Mine Academy and NIOSH’s Lake Lynn experimental mine laboratory and actually seeing a mine on fire, I really had no idea what we could really be dealing with. If our mine rescue team hadn’t trained with those professionals, we would have never known proper procedures for putting out a fire. It is vital that you have your people trained on the proper equipment to be able to take care of it. To borrow a phrase, we are the people we otherwise would be waiting for. And you need to be ready to handle whatever comes up,” said Chapman.

Daily Safety Briefings & Devotionals

To keep everybody on the same page, CRE also conducts weekly safety meetings and daily safety briefings. “Normally we have a safety meeting every Monday morning with everyone. And then before each miner goes underground, the shift foreman has a meeting with them as well,” Chapman said.

Knowing how much is simply not in any of our hands, every single day CRE also conducts a devotional prayer. “With the help of a local minister, we begin every day with word of prayer on all three shifts. With his voice coming over the radio, if the man bus is moving, it stops. All production stops. Everyone has a radio, everyone can hear the prayer as it echoes around the mine. It’s a way to focus everyone’s minds not just on safety, but on their own mortality, on their families, and the greater forces in our world. Though it’s only for two to three minutes, the prayer helps remind the men about what’s really important,” said Chapman.

Enforcing Safety

But training, safety and compliance still have to be backed up and enforced by the coal producers themselves. According to MSHA, a methane ignition and coal dust were the root cause of the UBB explosion.

“While I’m in the section underground, gas checks are taking place,” said JD Morris, a former instructor at the Mine Academy and now a safety and compliance officer at a coal company. “But once I turn a break and go down the entry, are those gas checks still taking place? My mission is to figure out how to change this mindset.”

For Morris, it’s not a matter of training, it’s about execution. “The last re-training I taught, during the section on gas checks somebody said ‘well, as long as you’re doing it for the company, its fine,’ Morris said. “Until that attitude changes, nothing is going to change.  And how do you change X amount of coal miner’s thinking? You do it one at a time. You get them one-on-one and try to drill this into them. You teach them, talk to them. You reprimand them. You do whatever you’ve got to do. But no matter what, so many of them come into the job thinking ‘it couldn’t happen to me.’

“In West Virginia, every mine is deemed gassy. Each liberates some amount of methane. It might not be detected at the face, but the automatic measuring systems in the return air courses will pick it up. The prevailing attitude, however, is that ‘if it’s not right in my face, then who cares?,” Morris said.

Safety education and training is an on-going, never ending process. “It’s more than just educating on site. Safety department personnel have to be going underground on a daily basis. They have to be at the active points of cutting and loading, right there in the action, on the working sections, taking notes, and educating in the field. If you’re just sitting in an office occasionally making a phone call saying ‘ya’ll better make gas checks’, no one is going to pay any attention to that.  Your job is to be right there, up by the men, actually being your brother’s keeper.  That will make an impact,” said Morris.

 

Buchsbaum is a Denver-based freelance writer and photographer specializing in industrial subjects. He can be reached through his Web site at www.lmbphotography.com or by phone at 303-746-8172.