Simulators train future coal miners

Simulators train future coal miners

As the miner tries to cut coal from the ribs of the mine, he makes a wide turn and bangs his hauler against the wall, injuring a co-worker. It’s a painful scenario, and not entirely rare.

But this time it’s just a simulation.

The three-dimensional simulators here at Hazard Community and Technical College in eastern Kentucky give rookie miners and mining students a taste of underground dangers without risking their lives.

After the deadly disasters this year at the Sago mine in West Virginia and the Darby mine in southeastern Kentucky, experts say the new technology is one way to improve training. And with roughly 50 percent of the industry’s current work force set to retire within the next decade, simulators also are seen as a way to attract more people into the profession.

“In the big scope of things, our training on simulators will show new miners how the industry has changed and the job has become computerized,” said Jay Box, president of the Hazard college. “That will increase the desire to enter the field.”

Beyond Kentucky, from Appalachia to Australia, the coal industry is turning to simulation technology as a safety tool.

West Virginia University’s Academy of Mine Training and Energy Technology employs both underground and surface mining simulators in it courses. Immersive Technologies, an Australian producer of coal machinery simulators, says its clients include mine operators in Indonesia.

Likewise, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration uses a special lab at its academy in Beckley, W.Va., to simulate smoky or gaseous conditions for students practicing rescue techniques.

MSHA also has considered buying machinery simulators for its National Mine Health and Safety Academy, which trains mine inspectors, miners and others in the industry. The agency said in a statement it has held off because “they are very expensive and are limited in the number of students that can be trained.”

The Hazard college invested about $530,000 for its four simulators. Two are used for underground training and two for surface simulations. The money came from a $3 million state appropriation for the Kentucky Coal Academy, a program made up of four community and technical colleges that offer courses on coal operations.

The simulation of a “continuous miner,” a machine that cuts coal from the ribs of a mine and hauls it, is one of four training applications to be offered this fall at Hazard. The other underground simulator is a roof-bolting device that teaches how to drive protective plates into the ceiling of mined out areas. The 3-D images can be viewed on a large screen, a computer monitor or a virtual reality headset.

The simulators measure a student’s performance by recording every action and operating error. In one scenario, the miner uses the wrong drill bit to install a roof bolt, resulting in a flashing red caution message: “WARNING ”” Drill bit too long.”

“This generation of simulators really do mimic the precise movement and features of actual machines,” said Chris Hamilton, head of the West Virginia Coal Association and a member of a safety task force assembled after an explosion at the Sago mine resulted in the deaths of 12 miners in January. Last month, five miners died at the Darby operation in Harlan County, Ky.

Industry officials hope that improved safety can help counter a sharp decline in workers. Nationwide, there are about 72,000 coal workers, down from 90,000 in 1995, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

“We are on the eve of retraining our existing work force and of replacing a large segment of our work force with new miners,” said Hamilton.

Even as the work force shrinks, coal production is gaining momentum, driven in part by soaring oil and natural gas prices.

U.S. production reached a record level in 2005, ending the year at 1.13 billion tons, according to preliminary data from the Energy Information Administration. That would be an increase of 21.2 million tons from 2004 and surpass 2001′s record by 5.6 million tons.

The Appalachian region, which stretches from Pennsylvania to Alabama, increased its production by 2 percent in 2005. Kentucky miners produced an additional 4 million tons over the last year, bringing the state’s total to 120 million tons.

Frank Winstead, a coal mining instructor at Hazard with 25 years in the industry, says the simulators let the next generation of miners make their bad decisions or careless mistakes ”” which could prove fatal in reality ”” without endangering themselves or damaging millions of dollars of non-imaginary equipment.

“It’s a whole lot safer to run it on a simulator than underground the old way,” he said.

Plus, the students learn what to do when disaster strikes. The instructors can challenge future miners by simulating machine failure, poor visibility conditions, gas leaks and other emergencies.

The experts noted that the simulators are not a replacement for traditional training by certified firms or the government.

Miners are required to have 40 hours of “new miner” training before even entering a mine, where they go through another 45 hours of supervised training on equipment, said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.

“I think simulators contribute to overall safety,” Caylor said.

Added Hamilton: “They have to be mindful that they are simulators, used to provide basic information, but they don’t replace the machine environment completely.”

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