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From Sago to Soma: How Turkey Can Avoid the Mistakes of the United States

The Turkish mining industry would benefit from looking at the events that followed on from the Sago coal mine disaster in the US in 2006, where 12 miners died after becoming trapped underground following an explosion and fire. In the aftermath, legislation was rushed through making refuge chambers compulsorily in West Virginia underground coal mines – known as the ‘West Virginia’ Ruling (first introduced in West Virginia, and then adopted nationwide through MSHA PIB NO. P07-03).

In their haste, the US mining authorities overlooked vital safety features in chambers, such as the need for cooling and the ability to withstand secondary explosions. They also failed to require performance testing on anyone wanting to manufacture and sell refuge chambers into the industry.

Effect of Hasty Legislation to Safety in Coal Mining

The result? Opportunist manufacturers ‘sprang up’ overnight as soon as the West Virginia Ruling was introduced – manufacturers with limited prior refuge experience or specialist engineering knowledge. They sold cheap, untested units – units that quickly flooded the market. The mines themselves weren’t to blame – they were simply following the legislation; unaware of the dangers involved in buying unsafe, untested refuge chambers.

Only three years later in 2009, and following independent tests and the advice of refuge specialists, more thorough legislation was introduced by the US Mines Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). This legislation is still in place today and served as the benchmark for future refuge chamber legislation in both China and India.

The MSHA legislation quickly and correctly deemed most of the refuge chambers already underground to be unsafe and ordered they be removed and/or ‘retro-fitted’ to the new minimum safety standards. This transition, where the old refuge chambers were to be ‘grand-fathered’ out, was at the expense of the mines themselves. As a result, the average US underground coal mine is having to pay up to 50% of the original purchase price to correct their refuge chambers, and all because the original legislation was rushed into place without proper consultation.

Sago, therefore, serves as an important reminder to Turkish mining authorities looking to introduce refuge chamber legislation into Turkey after the tragedy at Soma. Of course some form of legislation needs to be introduced, however, it should be done the correct way, to avoid costly mistakes – both monetarily and in terms of safety.

“The best example to date of an industry that adopted a correct consultative approach to creating new legislation is the global tunnelling industry, specifically the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association (ITA)”, commented MineARC General Manager Mike Lincoln.

“After a history of tunnel fires and tunnel collapses, refuge chambers were deemed mandatory in tunnelling projects during the construction phase. Before writing and introducing the legislation the ITA formed a ‘Working Group’ and invited refuge specialists and manufacturers to sit and advise on minimum safety standards; including manufacture and deployment (e.g. where refuge chambers should be deployed).

“The result is that we now have a single industry Guideline for the majority of the world’s tunnelling projects – a Guideline that is the best it could be. It ensures workers, wherever they are in the world, are provided with the highest level of safety protection available.”

The Future of Coal Mining Safety in Turkey

Adopting a consultative approach to forming refuge legislation would ensure the following;

  1. The legislation in Turkey would be of a high standard – in line with leading coal producers around the world, including the US and China.
  2. The refuge chambers in Turkey would, therefore, be safe – featuring the most advanced safe-refuge technology available.
  3. All of which would most importantly mean that Turkish miners will be safer.
  4. Strong legislation would eliminate the threat of ‘opportunist’ manufacturers who have already begun to take advantage of the situation in Turkey, by offering cheap, unsafe and untested refuge chambers to unsuspecting mines.
  5. Strong legislation would stand the test of time, without requiring revision in the near future. Mines will avoid the risk of unsafe refuge chambers and future replacement costs.

Mike Lincoln: “Having witnessed similar events unfold in other countries, we feel that the Turkish mining authorities will learn from the mistakes of the past, and introduce strong and meaningful refuge chamber legislation.”

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