NIOSH Proposes New Emergency Air Packs For Underground Coal Mines

Hybrid airpacks combine oxygen-generating devices and filter self-rescuers.

BEAVER, W.Va. (AP) – The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said Tuesday it will ask manufacturers to propose two new types of emergency airpacks for underground coal mines.

NIOSH official John Kovac said the agency wants proposals for hybrid airpacks, or self-rescuers, that combine the oxygen-generating devices used today with filter self-rescuers that scrub toxins but do not provide oxygen. Filter self rescuers were used in coal mines, but today are limited to other underground mining operations.

NIOSH also wants proposals for airpacks that allow miners to swap out chemical cartridges that generate oxygen and remove carbon-dioxide. Today, miners must switch to a new airpack if it stops working.

Kovac told about 40 representatives of mine operators, self-rescuer manufacturers and others that a request for proposals will come shortly, depending on funding from Congress. His remarks came during a daylong meeting about the next generation of self-rescuers at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration Academy (MSHA).

Emergency airpacks have become a critical issue since fatal accidents at the Sago and Aracoma Alma No. 1 mines in West Virginia in January and at the Kentucky Darby mine in May. Most of the miners killed in those accidents died of carbon monoxide poisoning when they were unable to escape.

All wore the top brand of airpacks manufactured by Monroeville, Pa.-based CSE Corp. MSHA says tests show airpacks recovered from those disasters still generated oxygen and therefore were in working order. But Sago survivor Randal McCloy Jr. and others say some of the devices failed.

Kovac also said NIOSH is close to proposing new standards for certifying self-rescuers for use in coal mines. The idea was first proposed by a NIOSH engineer in 1999, but is being revisited.

NIOSH plans public hearings on the idea in September and October in Washington and Denver. The hearings are the first step toward developing new standards, Kovac said.

Kovac suggested mandatory inspections of all self-rescuers used at U.S. coal mines. Kentucky recently completed such a sweep and found more than 100 defective devices from mines. West Virginia recently ordered all coal mines to submit detailed inventories of their airpacks, a first step toward state testing and certification of self-rescuers.

Separately, MSHA official Jeff Kravitz said a miner used a CSE self-rescuer to escape June 30 after a roof fall accident at the San Juan mine in New Mexico. The miner was able to don a 10-minute self-rescuer on his belt and reach a cache of CSE airpacks, then traversed more than 7,800 feet to escape, Kravitz said.

''There was a successful case,'' he said.

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