A truck containing explosives caught fire in an underground limestone mine in Missouri. When the explosives detonated, five miners became trapped beneath the rubble. An intense rescue followed, and four miners were successfully extricated. Tragically, one miner died from his injuries.
This scenario, fortunately, never actually happened. It was part of a mine emergency response drill conducted by the Mine Safety and Health Administration at the Central Plains Cement Co. in Sugar Creek, Mo.
Locating and rescuing trapped and injured miners is a skill that must be developed in the hope that it’s never put to use. Simulated mine emergencies help prepare mine rescue teams for an actual mining disaster, such as a fire, explosion or cave-in.
The landscape at the Sugar Creek plant was dotted with emergency vehicles from the local fire department, Missouri Department of Labor, Draeger (a mine safety technology company) and mine rescue teams from throughout the Midwest. These nine teams had their work cut out for them, navigating through dense smoke with zero visibility, extinguishing fires and administering first aid on dozens of “injured” miners in a triage environment.
Thanks to state-of-the-art communications technology that MSHA recently acquired, personnel in the surface command center were able to track the teams’ movements underground with digital maps and cameras and transmit critical information instantly. This equipment has already been deployed during emergency situations at mines in Colorado, Illinois, Texas, Virginia and Iowa.
When I came to MSHA six year ago, improving mine emergency response became one of my top priorities. I’ve spent days, weeks – even months – at rescue and recovery operations and have seen first hand the need for enhanced response readiness. Consequently, in 2010, I directed MSHA to analyze our emergency response system, identify gaps and outline the improvements we needed to make. A lengthy collaboration with industry stakeholders began, and the outcome, I believe, is a better and stronger foundation for mine rescue.
I applaud Central Plains’ commitment to safety and mine emergency response. There is no downside to preparation and training. Simulated drills such as the one in Missouri – along with effective communication technology – will improve the odds of saving miners’ lives and keeping our rescuers out of harm’s way in the event of a mine disaster.
Joseph A. Main is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.