April 11, 2010

W. VA. Mine Disaster Points to Need to Apply Psychological Research to Improve Mine Safety

Questions for mining safety expert Steve Shope, PhD.

Reporters/editors/producers Note: The following feature was produced by the American Psychological Association. Feel free to use it in its entirety or in part; we only request that you credit APA as the source. We also have a photograph of the researcher available to reprint.

steve-shopeThe unfolding tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia is putting a spotlight on mine safety in this country and raising questions about what scientific research can contribute to improving mine safety. The American Psychological Association spoke with Dr. Steve Shope, a physicist who has been working with the association on issues relating to mine safety and human factors science; a subfield of psychology. Dr. Shope holds a PhD in physics with a research emphasis in electromagnetics and geophysics, and has been actively engaged in electromagnetic research projects for 30 years. In the 1980s, Dr. Shope worked in the U.S. Bureau of Mines trapped-miner research program as in-house senior engineer and technical project officer for external research contracts. During that time, Dr. Shope conducted extensive theoretical and experimental studies using very-low-frequency magnetic induction fields for detection, location and communication with personnel trapped underground in mine disasters. The studies included hardware design and fabrication, field experimentation, development of search strategies, signal analysis and other advanced research topics. He was the Bureau of Mines technical representative to the Mine Safety and Health Administration Seismic Location System.

In 1987 Dr. Shope founded Sandia Research Associates Inc, which in 2001 was merged into Sandia Research Corp. He has been CEO of both companies from their inception. In 2008, Sandia Research Corp. bought the Government Contracting Division of US Positioning Group LLC. For the last two years, he has volunteered his time to work with APA’s Science Government Relations staff to advocate for the value of behavioral research, as it applies to mine safety, on Capitol Hill in hopes that congress will fund a comprehensive study of mine safety issues at the National Academy of Sciences.

APA. Given what we know so far about what has happened at the Upper Big Branch mine, what do you, as a geophysicist and mine safety expert, suspect contributed to so many lives being lost?

Shope. This explosion, because of its magnitude, appears to have resulted from a combination of coal dust and methane. I cannot overestimate the power of these explosions and quickness which they can propagate throughout a mine. Unfortunately, such large blasts are often not survivable. The key is prevention.

APA. How does the culture of mining contribute to or stymie the adoption of new technologies into the mining industry?

Shope. While mine safety has been improving in general, we are still seeing these large disasters. In a positive light, the mining industry has a very strong culture of community and this culture has been a pillar of support during tough times (of all kinds) in the mining industry. There is also a culture of self-sufficiency; a negative aspect of this is that there is not a lot of intermingling of outside cultures and technologies into the mining industry.

APA. What are some examples of this?

Shope. There is a rapidly growing field of science called Human Systems Integration (HSI), which looks at ways in which humans and complex systems can be better integrated. This field encompasses human factors training, command and control, decision making, fatigue, team work, and ergonomics. Human factors is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system. NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD) both have large research efforts in HSI. It is my feeling the integration of HSI research and methodologies can make a tremendous improvement in mine safety and mine efficiencies.

APA. What are areas in mining where an HSI approach could provide improvement?

Shope. One example is training. In both NASA and DOD, there has been a long history of training research. This includes the design of training, the measurement of training effectiveness, measurement of training retention, and development of training regimes tailored to the individual and teaching effective decision-making. Additionally, virtual reality simulation and training systems are commonplace and effective in these other agencies. There is a tremendous amount of improvement in mine training and this technology does exist in other industries.

Another area where HSI research could be applied is in the human factors of equipment. The Self-Contained Self-Rescuer (SCSR) is a prime example of equipment being poorly designed from a human factors standpoint. (The SCSR is a portable breathing apparatus commonly used in mining.) We’ve seen in several recent disasters where only about 25 percent of the units were successfully activated. These units must be designed to easily be activated during times of limited visibility, stress and poor environmental conditions. These data point to both poor training and poor SCSR design. However, training should never be a crutch for poor equipment design.

APA. Are there other examples of poor equipment design?

Shope. There is a carbon monoxide (CO) meter used in mining that is known to be imprecise in its measurements. CO levels above 1,000 parts per million can rapidly lead to death. This particular meter reads up to 500 ppm. The problem is in atmospheres with levels higher than 500 ppm this unit still displays 500 ppm. Would the Federal Aviation Administration permit an altimeter in an aircraft that worked down to 1,000 feet but read 1,000 feet when the aircraft was at 500 feet? No.

APA. At the Upper Big Branch mine, why did they need to dig vent holes after the fact? Aren’t those supposed to be standard procedure?

Shope. The main purpose of the vent holes is to take gas samples from areas of the mine. The small-diameter boreholes can only provide a limited amount of ventilation for a very small area of the mine. From a command and control standpoint, it is hard to make effective decisions with limited or conflicting information. Technology exists to provide explosion-proof air sensors and through the earth telemetry so that a command center would have accurate information concerning air quality throughout the mine after a disaster.

APA. How much has changed in what we know about mining safety since the Sago Mine disaster of January 2006, in which 13 miners were trapped for nearly two days and only one survived?

Shope. Now is the time to make some major changes in the safety of mining. The integration of human systems into the mining industry is a great example where major safety improvements can be made in the industry. Before this can be done, the “how” has to be defined. This is an ideal example where a neutral and highly respected body, such as the National Academy of Sciences, could be tasked with a study to make specific recommendations to the mining industry. We need a committee of world-class experts, including mining representatives along with HSI experts.

APA. Are there regulatory fixes that could improve safety and accident investigation in the mining industry?

Shope. In my mind, there is an obvious conflict with Mine Safety and Health Administration being a regulatory and enforcement body and at the same time being the accident/disaster investigative body. Often, certain regulations and/or regulatory practices can contribute to an accident or disaster. A similar circumstance once existed in the aviation industry. However, now the FAA is the regulatory and enforcement body and the National Transportation Safety Board (completely independent from the FAA) is the accident investigation entity. If one compares the official MSHA report on the Sago disaster to the independent report commissioned by Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, we see a much less biased analysis of the accident.

Additionally, accident investigation requires a special set of skills and having an agency or board that has a large amount of expertise in investigations can greatly improve the value of an accident report and follow-up recommendations. Interviewing survivors who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder requires special skills. Two survivors of the Sago disaster committed suicide -- it was reported that the investigators made them feel responsible for the deaths of their fellow miners.

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