On Thursday, the independent investigation panel convened by West Virginia Governor Tomblin released its report on the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that occurred on April 5, 2010. You can read the report here, and it's a surprisingly easy and educational read. I also have to say that it makes for very depressing reading.
Over the years, and generally in response to earlier mine disasters, the Powers That Be have passed laws that implement a series of monitoring and reporting requirements with the sole aim of making mining—an inherently dangerous occupation—as safe as possible for the people involved in it. Here in the U.S. we have the Mine Safety and Health Administration that operates under the Dept. of Labor and is tasked with keeping a beady eye on mines and mining companies to make sure that they comply with these safety regulations.
As our understanding of the risks involved has grown and the technologies necessary to keep miners safe have improved, they've been applied. We have methane detectors rather than canaries, for instance; the ventilation systems are more effective; the lighting is both better and safer; barriers prevent explosions for propagating; and equipment on mining machines can prevent or minimize explosions caused when methane is exposed to sparks from cutting tools.
Wireless sensor networking, with its ability to reliably communicate in difficult environments, has been investigated for mine safety applications, specifically to track equipment and miners within mines, for years. In the 2004 Sensors article "When Safety Matters: Using Active RFID Down the Mines", the author presented an Active RFID-based system developed in Norway. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University developed the FireFly real-time wireless sensor network platform and tested its ability to track people inside the NIOSH mine. (If you want to learn everything you ever wanted to know about mining safety, I would advise a visit to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Web site, and specifically NIOSH's Office of Mine Safety and Health Research's list of mining safety topics. It is a very informative way to lose a couple of hours.). The ACCOLADE wireless mesh communication system for use in mines. from L-3 Communications is commercially available. Research into the topic continues.
Use It Or Lose Lives
You can have the best safety technology in the world but if you don't use it, you might as well not have it at all. If you read the investigative report's list of findings and recommendations, you'll see part of why reading this report was so depressing. The ventilation system wasn't working properly, insufficient amounts of rock dust were applied (which tamps down coal dust and prevents a methane explosion from triggering a coal dust explosion) mostly because the workers didn't have sufficient and working machinery to apply said dust, and the safety features on the machinery weren't properly maintained. Oh, and the watchdogs didn't go after the safety violations.
I am a huge fan of technology; I think it is the bee's patellas. However, the Big Branch Mine Explosion wasn't a failure of technology; it was man-made and preventable and somehow that makes it so much worse.