News & Media

Regulators Facing Conundrum on SCSRs

June 6, 2014

Published in: Sharpe’s Point: On Mine Safety, Sharpe Media

The clock is ticking on the service life of closed circuit escape respirators (CCERs) used in underground mining, and no game plan has been devised to deal with the impending situation.

CCERs are better known in the mining industry as self-contained self-rescuers (SCSRs). SCSRs have a 10- to 15-year service life. Sales of the units received a big boost with release in December 2006 of MSHA’s emergency mine evacuation rule. Thus, assuming a large percentage of SCSRs were purchased for compliance with the rule around that time, many are approaching the end of their service life and will need to be replaced.

No big deal, you might say, just replenish with new units. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. NIOSH published new certification standards in April 2012. The changes included replacing duration testing with capacity testing; i.e., determining how much oxygen the device could be expected to supply a miner rather than for how long. In addition, human subjects testing was scaled back in favor of a breathing simulator to improve the consistency of results. Requirements for indicators to warn users of potential degradation and/or decreased performance were also mandated.

The new rule also included a provision that allowed SCSR manufacturers to sell units certified under NIOSH’s old certification standard only until April 7, 2015. After that, only SCSRs certified under the new standard may be sold.

The trouble is, no manufacturers of the most commonly used 60-minute SCSRs have applied for approval. “As of now, we do not have any requests in-house for those CAP III products, the 60-minute units that would be needed in the mines,” Maryann D’Alessandro told members of the Mine Safety and Health Research Advisory Committee (MSHRAC) in April. D’Alessandro leads NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory.

So, unless something gives by April 9, 2015, no units will be available under the new standard, and no units certified under the old standard may be sold. With aging units gradually being removed from service, a shortage of approved units could develop.

Given the situation, NIOSH has been examining its options. The preferred choice is to extend the deadline. “Our job in the government is to push technology a bit to try and get better products out there to improve worker safety and health,” D’Alessandro told the MSHRAC members. “Perhaps the market wasn’t ready yet, so we have to make a decision relative to keeping it [the 2015 deadline] where it is or extending it.” But if an extension is the choice, how long should it last? “We don’t know what would be a good time,” she admitted.

In a meeting with coal stakeholders last month, MSHA chief Joe Main said his agency would get together June 10 with NIOSH to discuss the issue. D’Alessandro said other meetings have been held with MSHA, but they ended without agreement on a course of action. Time is rapidly becoming of the essence. An extension will require rulemaking, a process that could take four to five months, she said.

Although there is no clear idea of how long an extension should run, it would have to take into account the time it takes for a manufacturer to go through certification and gear up to produce the approved units in volume. Once an operator receives the new breathing devices and before they could be put into service, miners would have to be trained on their care, use and maintenance. D’Alessandro speculated the approval and retooling process alone could take about a year.

One manufacturer, though, would beg to differ. CSE Corporation began working to respond to the new requirements even before they were published.

“We had started our planning before that [the April 2012 final rule date] because we knew this was in the works,” said Scott Shearer, who heads the Pennsylvania-based organization. “But we started full speed on April 2012 and have been doing nothing but preparing for this. … Our intent is the April 2015 deadline.”

In a telephone interview today, Shearer said his company was a few months away from seeking approval of its product, but said if everything goes according to plan, CSE would begin producing units next April.

CSE is one of only three manufacturers who provide the more than 200,000 escape respirators deployed in U.S. underground mines. The others are Draeger, also based in Pennsylvania, and Ocenco of Pleasant Prairie, WI.