Performance-Based Requirements are a Double-Edged Sword for Mine Operators

On January 15, 2015, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (“MSHA”) published its final rule on proximity detection systems for continuous mining machines in underground coal mines. Full-face continuous mining machines are exempt from the final rule. There are currently four different proximity detection systems that have been approved under the permissibility regulations. See 30 C.F.R. § 18.

The proximity detection systems standard will be incorporated into 30 C.F.R. §75.1732. The final rule takes effect on March 16, 2015, but has an incremental phase-in process, depending on the status of the equipment being used. While some mine operators have already implemented proximity detection systems for certain equipment, MSHA’s rule makes these systems mandatory for all continuous mining machines used underground, and establishes standards for their performance, examination, recordkeeping, training, and testing. Because MSHA has concluded that other equipment presents similar pinning/crushing/striking hazards, it has initiated rulemaking regarding the implementation of proximity detection systems on other equipment as well; however, this rulemaking relating to 30 C.F.R. §75.1732 that takes effect on March 16, 2015, relates only to continuous mining machines used in underground coal mines.

General Requirements for Proximity Detection Systems

Proximity detection systems consist of machine-mounted components and miner-wearable components. The system must provide an audible and visual alarm that can be distinguished from other kinds of alarms whenever the miner-wearable component comes close to the machine-mounted component, such that a miner would be able to move out of the way in time to avoid being struck by the machine.

The final rule requires that the system be able to cause a machine that is tramming or repositioning to stop before contacting a miner. When the system detects that it is in danger of contacting a miner, it should cease all machine movement, as well as any conveyor swing movement. Machines do not have to give a warning or stop while they are cutting coal or rock.

All miners on the working section are required to carry the miner-wearable component at all times, during both production and maintenance shifts.

Phase-In

While the rule becomes effective on March 16 of this year, these obligations will be phased in over a three-year period. The relatively long phase-in is intended to enable mine operators who will meet their obligations by retrofitting existing equipment already in service to do so during scheduled rebuilds and downtime. New machines manufactured after the effective date of the rule must comply by November 16, 2015. Machines that are already equipped with an existing proximity detection system as of March 16, 2015, must comply with the standard’s requirements by September 16, 2016.

Machines that are manufactured before March 16, 2015, but not equipped with a proximity detection system on the effective date, must be in compliance with 30 C.F.R. §75.1732 by March 16, 2018. Operators should note that while they have up to three years to retrofit such machines, if they place a continuous miner into service with a system at any point during that three years, it must comply with the requirements of 30 C.F.R. §75.1732 at the time it is placed into service.

Operators must comply with the training, examination, and recordkeeping requirements as soon as a continuous mining machine is placed into service with a proximity detection system. Any operator retrofitting an existing piece of equipment must obtain MSHA approval to add the required machine-mounted components.

Training, Examination, and Record-Keeping

All miners who will be present on the working section must receive new task training on the function and use of the proximity detection system prior to implementation. MSHA states that this should include hands-on training during supervised non-production activities.

The final rule requires that the system, including both the machine mounted and miner-wearable components, must be checked every shift the machine is used, including partial-shifts and shifts that begin with hot-seat transitions. Operators must designate a specific person responsible for checking the machine-mounted components each shift; that individual need not be qualified to perform electrical work.

At the completion of each check of the machine-mounted components, a certified person must certify with dates, times, and initials, that the check was conducted. In addition, any defects found during the check, along with a description and time of any corrective actions, must be recorded. Each mine must also maintain a record of all persons who are trained to install and perform maintenance on these systems. All of these records must be maintained for at least one year, and kept either in a secure book, or in a secure electronic format.

Potential Enforcement Issues Due to Performance-Based Requirements

The proposed rule would have required proximity detection systems to warn miners when they came within five feet of the continuous miner. Responding to comments, MSHA modified the final rule to require systems to alert miners with an audible and visual warning before causing the machine to stop. The rule’s preamble clarifies that MSHA expects that such systems will provide warnings “at a distance that will allow the miner to move away before the proximity detection system causes the machine to stop.” With the lack of a set distance at which these systems are required to alarm, there may be disagreement, particularly during the early implementation of these systems, as to how early these systems should be alarming.

While expensive, these systems are likely to help reduce some of these preventable pinning/crushing/striking injuries that have occurred underground. This is exactly why some in the industry are already implementing proximity detection technology. Mine operators, however, must take care to fully comply with the other obligations in this rule beyond installing the required components.