August 19, 2007 The Pump Handle 8Comment

For the first year on the job, a new underground coal miner wears a red-colored hardhat to signal to everyone on the crew that he (or she) is a rookie.  These so-called “red hats” receive 40 hours of safety training before they are allowed to take on any mining duties, on topics ranging roof control,  mine gases, evacuation procedures, and their rights provided by the Mine Act (1978).  By tradition, after one year on-the-job, “red hats” earn a black hard hat.  I’ve heard stories of some young miners keeping track inside their dinner buckets the number of days until they can shed their red hat for a black one.

When CNN’s Gary Tuchman accompanied mine operator Bob Murray into the Crandall Canyon mine, the reporter wasn’t wearing a red-hat, but a squeeky-clean looking one apparently preserved for visitors.  A debate about whether it was wise to allow reporters underground during an ongoing rescue effort has played out in the Utah papers.  It started with Ellen Smith, the managing editor of the Mine Safety and Health News, writing:

…as someone who has covered the health and safety side of this industry for 18 years…I could not believe what I was seeing on CNN news and reading on MSHA’s website: a television crew and accompanying reporters, and family members, being allowed inside the mine to view the rescue operations.  I sat glued to the TV watching the CNN newscast—speechless.  All I could think of was: “What was MSHA and mine owner Robert Murray thinking when they allowed these non-rescue personnel into the mine?”  I was stunned.

CNN reported they were at the mine rescue ‘face,’ a 30-minute, 3-mile ride inside the mine, where rescuers are removing debris trying to get to these trapped men.  While the reporters were filming, a severe bump occurred physically shaking the mine, crew and machinery–scaring everyone.  As the CNN reporter said, “Frankly, this was very scary.  I have to tell you that I have been in Afghanistan and Iraq and that was scary…this was very scary in another way.”

Murray later claimed that the area in which the film crew and families were allowed to tour was “safe.”  Mr. Murray said he’s in charge…  Mr. Murray also said that MSHA approved of the news reporters and the two family members, who have mining experience going into the mine.  As of this report [8/13] those family members have been back into the mine at least three times.

Her editorial continued:

Assistant Labor Secretary Richard Stickler said of the two family members who went into the mine, “It’s been worth a million dollars to have those miners there,” so they could explain to the families what is going on.  He also said he will let them back in because one of them was trained as a rescuer. 

Regarding CNN being in the mine, Stickler said, “Pictures are worth a thousand words.” 

I have a real problem with this.  First, the MSHA family liaison is supposed to be the one to explain to the family what is going on in terms of the rescue.  This is mandated in the MINER Act.  Second, animated pictures were used during the Quecreek Rescue five years ago.  Those animations were able to show what was taking place.  The press could have relied on animations in this very unstable mine rescue operation.

Third, I have been told since 1989 by MSHA that during a rescue operation, the mine is made ‘safe-enough’ for rescue, but that it certainly not brought up to the same safety standards as if mining were taking place.  There have also been occasions when rescuers were killed during mine rescue operations.

On Thursday morning, Mr. Murray noted the lack of progress because of “seismic activity,” and he stated in the press conference, “we could have more siesmic activity” which would delay the rescue if they had to retreat.

My point exactly.  Why risk any more lives?  Let’s look at this in a different context: we aren’t even letting family members on ‘stable’ portions of the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed.  We don’t let people in damaged houses if there are aftershocks from earthquakes.  Firemen don’t let family members back into a burning house.  There are hundreds of analogies.

This isn’t supposed to be a “feel good” operation.  It’s dangerous and unsafe mine rescue, in which MSHA must take the lead in assuring the families that everything possible is being done to get to their loved ones.

If the news crews want to see what it is like inside of a mine, they should go to one of the tourist mines or another underground mine in Utah that isn’t under a rescue mode of operation.  If the news crews want to experience the feeling of “seismic” activity, let them go on Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

What did this accomplish, especially if another catastrophic failure or “seismic event” occurred?  Would it have been worth a “million dollars” or “a thousand words” to lose more human lives?

I have defended the record of this mine from the first hour of this accident.  I have defended the industry and the strides it has made since I began covering mine safety and health issues in 1989.  But I will not defend what I see as high negligence and reckless disregard on the part of MSHA and Mr. Murray for allowing these people into the mine during this very serious rescue operation when ‘seismic activity’ continues to occur, and when no one knows why such a catastrophic failure occured to begin with.

The Deseret Morning News responded with an editorial  (8/14) of its own, which included the following:

As for the tour he offered into the mine, we disagree that it was unprofessional.  It was, instead, a welcomed glimpse into both the daunting nature of the operation and the feelings of those involved.  Reporters were kept at distance from the rescue operation. …Murray, who initially showed a lot of mistrust of the media, did the nation a favor by taking reporters on this tour, bringing them and their audiences close to the unfolding drama. 

Yes, there was a risk involved.  However, reporters visit war zones and other hazardous places, and they entered the mine knowing the dangers.

A few days later, the Mine Safety and Health News editor responded:

I believe that reporters understand the risks when they follow a unit into war or go into a war zone, as you suggested, but they do not knowingly walk through a mine-field, nor would professional soldiers let them. I do not think they understood what they were doing, nor the risks, when they went into the Crandall Mine. In my opinion, Mr. Murray claiming it was “safe” and MSHA agreeing to this, was criminal.

…You may not know that mining engineers are now saying that if they can prove for certain that the miners are dead, they should just close the mine with the bodies in there. It is that dangerous. This has been done in mines in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and even in your own state [Utah], where the conditions were too dangerous to get the bodies out. 

…I’ve also reported on “rescues” where rescuers and/or miners trying to help in the rescue attempt have been killed. The latest was in September 2001 in the Jim Walter Resources Mine disaster in Alabama. It happened one week after 9/11.  TWELVE were killed trying to get to one injured miner leaving 13 dead and 13 heart-broken families. In the aftermath of a mine accident in Kentucky, rescuers and MSHA personnel were killed on the second day of the recovery efforts.

…This is an unstable mountain. It is the equivalent of a minefield. And, I didn’t write that editorial lightly. I waited 7 hours before sending it. I waited because I was wondering if I was stepping over that magic journalism line… do you take the picture of the unfolding disaster… or do you put your camera down and try to stop it? I did my best to try and stop what I thought was madness.

…Even if he, and MSHA, felt the need to “prove” that they were doing all they could do — so what? A new miner has to go through 40 hours of training  before being allowed to work in a mine, even to shovel a belt line, and has to be retrained every year. Forty-five minutes to learn how to don a self-contained self-rescuer, and some basic tips doesn’t cut it. Mine rescue team members have to have several years of mining experience before they are even allowed on a team.

Then, a few readers of the Salt Lake City papers and Ellen Smith’s own MSHN chimed in, with comments like:

The rescue effort isn’t about engineering, the law, statistical probability, or a technocratic journalist’s sensibilities. It’s about being human, about sacrifice, about honor, about courage in the face of fear, about unspoken commitments between those who face danger together. You have a job to do, but do not presume to “speak truth” to this situation. Your tunnel-vision rejoinder to the editorial strongly suggests that you are not qualified.

There’s no doubt that those working the rescue at Crandall Canyon are willing to “sacrifice,” and are displaying great “courage in the face of fear” and an “unspoken commitment between those who face danger together.”  The same holds true for the rescuers who tried to save the two trapped surface miners at the Tri-State mine (Barton, Maryland) in April 2007, or the 12 trapped Sago miners, the five Darby miners, or the hundreds of other miners rescued or recovered over the decades.  Those who work mine rescues are a special breed.  But that doesn’t mean that these rescue operations can be free-for-alls.  Mine rescues require the most-experienced mining engineers and miners who have been through these kinds of situations before.  They use their skill and science to “work the problem.”  It is about engineering, the law [especially the laws of physics] and statistical probability.  That doesn’t mean they are emotionless robots, because they do take incredible risks and put themselves in danger to save their fellow miners.

Underground mines can be dangerous.  Underground mines under a 103(k) order for a rescue mode are especially dangerous.  They  are not a place for hordes of red-hats, much less for those who haven’t even earned a red hat.  MSHN‘s Ellen Smith’s editorial is now hauntingly prescient as the lives of three rescuers were lost on Thursday at Crandall Canyon.   Two of the most recent victims, injured one injured fatally, were MSHA employees. 

One of the key principles of mine rescue operations, which is reinforced religiously during team training exercises and mine rescue contests, is that rescuers’ actions should guard against additional injury or death.  When an explosion, fire, inundation or other extremely dangerous event occurs in a mine, it is no longer ‘business as usual’.  It is a tenuous situation with conditions changing by the minute.   It is not a place for TV crews, reporters, or others who are not mining professionals and designated essential personnel for the emergency response.  Period.

8 thoughts on “No “Red Hats” Allowed: Dangers of Underground Mining

  1. Thank you for presenting this. I hope that it becomes the basis for a NYT or WaPo Op-Ed, as it should be required reading for all Americans.

  2. OSHA has regs forbidding workers to rescue confined space or trench collapse victims unless conditions are made safe. The emergency response section of OSHA’s HAZWOPER standard (1910.120) is also focused on not creating any more victims. The history of these incidents is full of tragic stories of rescuers being injured and killed in well-intentioned,but unsafe rescue attempts. The laws are based on this history.

  3. Ellen Smith is 100% right, and so are you. I covered the Scotia mine disaster in 1976 for the UMWA and was present when a particularly obnoxious network TV reporter, wearing his trademark 6-foot-long scarf, approached Bob Barrett — director of MESA, MSHA’s predecessor — and asked if he could take a camera crew inside the portal to film that night’s talking-head report. Barrett, a good guy saddled with a compound tragedy (two explosions, 26 dead including three federal inspectors), gave him an evil thousand-yard-stare, paused for about five seconds, and said, very quietly, “You must be out of your f—ing mind.” That’s what Richard Stickler should have said to Gary Tuchman of CNN and to any other would-be disaster-voyeurs, overruling Bob Murray if necessary, and it should be the fixed policy of whoever succeeds Stickler.

  4. When I went for my class for underground coal mining I had to take an 80 hour course. The surface people had to have 40 hours. That was in West Virginia 3 years ago.

  5. Rah2008,
    I’m honored to know that a real coal miner reads The Pump Handle. Is the 80-hour requirement something unique to West Virginia?


  6. Celeste,
    An 80 hour course is required in many states (i.e. ky, wv, md, pa, oh, il, etc.) Also, in order to become a black hat, you only have to work underground for 108 shifts in West Virginia. Completed consecutively, this can be done in much shorter than a years time.

  7. The 80 hour course in West Virginia does not ensure employment, and many steps are taken now to prevent any safety knowledge lacking miners from retaining jobs. You have one year to earn your black hat or retest for red hat to remain in the mines which requires a refresher course. Once in the mines as a red hat infractions of dress code (loose clothing) can land you a fine of several hundred dollars. More serious violations can bring hefty fines to criminal charges. The mining industry in West Virginia has gotten very serious about making mines safe as possible by eliminating human error and deliberate disregard of safety rules and laws. WV inspectors are in many cases more inclined to site violations than federal inspectors these days.

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