May 1, 2006

Miners’ union wants breathing equipment checked

By Steve James

NEW YORK -- The miners' union called on Monday for nationwide testing of emergency breathing equipment after the lone survivor of the Sago mine disaster charged some oxygen-providing devices failed in the underground accident that left 12 men dead.

"It appears that inadequate supplies of emergency oxygen contributed to the deaths of the Sago miners," Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers (UMWA), wrote in a letter to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

He sought immediate nationwide testing of emergency oxygen equipment, known as self-contained self-rescue (SCSR) devices.

"Every miner working today must know, without the shadow of a doubt, that the SCSR he or she straps to their belt before they go to work and the ones that are stored underground for emergency use, will function properly," Roberts said in a letter obtained by Reuters.

"It's MSHA's job to provide miners with that security, and we call on MSHA to do its job."

The mine safety administration, part of the U.S. Labor Department, did not immediately comment on the letter.

The union's appeal was prompted by a letter from the only survivor of January's blast at the Sago mine in West Virginia, who said crucial emergency breathing equipment that might have saved the men trapped underground did not work.

Randal McCloy, who survived 42 hours trapped underground, said in a letter to co-workers' families and investigators that four of the oxygen-providers failed.

The MSHA said Thursday that tests showed the devices were in working order. However, it was unclear whether the miners knew how to use them.

In his letter to David Dye, Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, UMWA's Roberts noted that MSHA considered implementing rules in 1999 to address SCSRs after reports they were not being used properly in emergency situations and that training might not be adequate. But the Bush Administration dropped the proposal in 2001.

"Nothing has changed to improve SCSRs or their use," Roberts said in his letter. "Whether it was because the trapped miners could not properly don their SCSRs or some other reason, miners working in 2006 have reason to be concerned about whether they will be able to successfully use an SCSR if an emergency confronts them.

"MSHA has known about these concerns for many years; this year's coal mining tragedies only serve to prove that MSHA must take a more aggressive posture to protect and enhance miners' health and safety," the union leader said.

The Sago mine owner, International Coal Group. said it was working with state and federal authorities in the accident investigation to help avoid future accidents.

"The Sago mine provides self-contained its miners when they are hired. The SCSRs used at the Sago mine are widely used in the coal industry and are approved for use by MSHA," the company said in a statement.

"The SCSRs worn by the Sago miners were all within their manufacturer suggested life."