NIOSH logo and tagline

High-Tech Research to Prevent Mine Injuries, Deaths Spotlighted in NIOSH Research Guide

NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 260-8519
April 6, 2000

Miners die on the job at a significantly higher rate than workers in all U.S. industry as a whole. In 26 states, mining has the highest worker fatality rate of any industry. Fires, explosions, cave-ins, injuries from heavy machinery, and exposures to dust and toxic agents that may cause occupational lung diseases are among the hazards that may threaten miners in this physically intensive and changing industry.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is leading the Federal research to prevent these hazards by funding both internal and external studies. “A Compendium of NIOSH Mining Research 2000,” a new, illustrated guide, highlights the projects currently under way at the Institute’s mining research laboratories in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Spokane, Wash.

NIOSH is using the latest in high-tech tools to better understand the conditions and situations that place miners at risk, and to design effective, practical safeguards. Among these tools are advanced sensors coupled with new monitoring systems, new computer analysis and simulation of physical hazards and controls, interactive video training, and virtual reality. The research will stimulate progress in critical areas, from preventing mine fires and roof falls to safety training.

“Dramatic changes in the mining industry pose new challenges for preventing job-related injuries and illnesses, even as they offer new opportunities that we could not have dreamed of a few years ago,” said NIOSH Director Linda Rosenstock, M.D., M.P.H. “We are proud of the work we are doing, with the help of our outside partners in industry and labor, to develop and apply new research tools in this important mission.”

Examples of NIOSH’s research include the following:

  1. Wiring a coal mine with a three-dimensional array of seismic microphones linked to a computer, NIOSH is recording and analyzing the sounds caused by stresses in the tons of rock that surround the mine. By monitoring these sounds and coupling the information thus generated with mappings of stress patterns and complex geology, researchers may be able to identify the conditions likely to result in “coal bumps,” the violent rock stress bursts that can trigger cave-ins. This information will be key for helping engineers design safer, “bump proof” mines.
  2. NIOSH is profiling coal mine roof bolt systems’ the basic hardware that keeps mine roofs from crashing down on miners. Using an unprecedented data base from mines across the U.S., the Institute is cross-referencing data on bolt system designs, the size and geology of mine roofs, and occurrence of roof falls. From there, NIOSH will develop new guidelines to help engineers go beyond traditional trial-and-error methods in designing reliable, effective support systems. Researchers also are gaining valuable new information on roof bolt performance through newly developed monitoring instruments.
  3. Through partnerships with industry and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, NIOSH is developing and evaluating new technologies for keeping safe distances between mine haulage trucks and miners on foot at busy mine sites. Some 43 percent of all mining fatalities in the past five years have resulted from miners being in hazardous proximity to massive haulage trucks. Global positioning systems, advanced video cameras, computer simulations, and training are among the mix of tools being investigated to keep miners and moving trucks from getting dangerously close.
  4. NIOSH is developing and testing new programs to bring miner safety training into the 21st Century through development of virtual reality applications, videos, and computer simulations. In one such program, a simulation immerses the trainee in a realistic cyber emergency — a mine fire that replicates an actual disaster. Through practice, the trainee learns and memorizes the critical actions that would mean life or death in a real fire.
  5. NIOSH is developing “smart sensor” technology for faster detection of mine fires, where every added minute of warning can save lives. The research is aimed at designing better devices that will reliably distinguish smoke from common welding fumes and diesel exhaust, and at determining the most effective locations for sensor networks in mines.
  6. Through controlled laboratory ignition experiments, NIOSH is advancing the safe use of laser technology in mines for emerging applications such as surveying. NIOSH’s research is contributing to the development of international guidelines for determining safe power limits at which lasers will perform as intended without inadvertently heating dust particles in potentially flammable mine atmospheres.
  7. Working with industry and labor to investigate ways to reduce or eliminate diesel exhaust in mines, NIOSH is evaluating the potential of hydrogen fuel cells as a cleaner alternative to diesel engines for powering heavy underground equipment. The research will help answer three critical questions: Can hydrogen be safely stored and used in mines? Will hydrogen fuel cells improve underground air quality? Will they reduce miners’ noise exposures?

NIOSH is the federal agency that conducts research and makes recommendations for preventing work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths. It is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Pittsburgh and Spokane Research Laboratories, which led U.S. mining safety research in the past century under the former U.S. Bureau of Mines, have been part of NIOSH since 1996.

Copies of “A Compendium of NIOSH Mining Research 2000,” DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2000-109, are available from the NIOSH toll-free information number, 1-800-35-NIOSH (1-800-356-4674). Additional information on NIOSH research is also available from the toll-free number and from the NIOSH home page on the NIOSH site.