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MSHA News Release No. 96-016
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: Rodney Brown
Phone: (703) 235-1452

October 11, 1996


The nation's underground coal miners should be aware that the onset of colder weather creates more hazards in the mining workplace, warns the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The agency recently began its annual "winter alert" campaign to warn miners and mine operators of the increased risks of mine explosions during winter months.

Historically, most of the nation's worst mining disasters have occurred during the months October through March. In December 1907, a coal mine explosion at Monongah, W.Va., killed 362 miners--it was the worst mining accident in U.S. history.

"We want to communicate" the important message that colder weather brings additional hazards to the underground coal mining environment that must be addressed," said J. Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "And we want miners as well as their spouses, their children, and other relatives to know that these hazards can be prevented when proper precautions are taken."

McAteer continued, "Unfortunately, tragic mine explosions claim multiple victims and can wreak havoc on mining communities when fathers, sons, or mothers or daughters are suddenly taken away. This year we want our Winter Alert message to reach all miners' family members so that they all fully understand the hazards colder weather brings and how fatal mining accidents can be prevented during this time of year. It's a message that needs to be re-enforced on a daily basis."

"The greatest explosion hazard in coal mines comes from methane gas," said McAteer. "All coal seams contain some methane and when the barometer falls during colder weather, more of that methane migrates into the mine air than normal." Pockets of methane may accumulate in areas of the mine in which gas checks are infrequent. When an ignition source is present in that area, there exists the potential for a deadly explosion.

Colder weather also tends to dry out the air inside a coal mine. During summer, warm air coming into the mine brings moisture that condenses on mine surfaces and traps the coal dust. However, the drying effect of colder air makes coal dust more likely to get suspended in the mine atmosphere, which can also contribute to an explosion.

"Regardless of the weather," related McAteer, "mine operators and miners together can prevent explosions and other mine accidents by strictly adhering to the mine's approved ventilation plan and following all other existing mine safety regulations ."

During the winter alert, MSHA encourages mine operators to make frequent checks for methane and to maintain proper ventilation in the underground workings, paying special attention to areas that are not frequently traveled.

MSHA also urges miners and mine operators to do the following:

"We need relatives of miners to encourage them to take heed of these hazards and, particularly, to encourage smokers never to smoke in underground coal mines," stressed McAteer. Mine operators are required to conduct a search program to ensure that miners do not carry smoking materials into the mine.

During the winter alert campaign, MSHA also urges mine operators to have hoists, elevators, haulage and transportation equipment examined for ice build-up. MSHA advises that miners review training procedures on emergency escape routes and the correct use of self-rescue breathing devices. Operators are also encouraged to focus on the maintenance of proper escapeways.

Surface coal mine operators are urged to prepare for winter hazards such as the icing of roads and equipment and the freezing and thawing of highwalls which can also lead to tragic accidents.