'Virtual' MU program focuses on miner safety
HUNTINGTON -- Marshall University got an opportunity Wednesday to show U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the future of coal mine safety training with a technology it has to simulate mines in cyberspace.
Rockefeller said that this new technology was promising -- a good first step to increase safety for miners by preparing them for a variety of situations. The senator came to Marshall after visiting the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County on Tuesday, where 25 miners were reported dead and families awaited news of their loved ones trapped underground.
Rockefeller visited Marshall's 3-D Virtual Interactive Simulation Environment (VISE) Lab for a presentation by Tony Szwilski, director of the Marshall's Center for Environmental, Geotechnical and Applied Sciences. The lab uses technology to create a virtual environment for miners for training purposes. With an avatar of themselves on a screen, novices or even experienced miners can see a variety of situations in a mine to learn proper procedure and how to react.
They can learn how to handle things individually, and with other members of their team.
It's not used on a wide scale now, as there is still much to be developed, but it is used for some students in an apprenticeship program, said Randy Massey, a former miner who is now program coordinator and trainer for the Mine Safety Technology Consortium.
The program is in its early stages and will eventually have more capabilities as far as creating virtual emergencies, so that miners can learn how to react, Szwilski said. More sophisticated rescue training also is coming.
It's a collaborative project, involving eight institutions in West Virginia and Arkansas, he said.
What's nice about it is that miners will learn to take their responsibilities seriously after the simulations because they'll see the effects of their actions underground, Massey said. In most training settings, you can't actually create a hazardous situation, so it might not be taken seriously.
"We hope to change attitudes in men so that if they do things they're not supposed to do, they see that the consequences can be injury or death," he said.
Rockefeller asked questions pertaining to how much responsibility should be placed on the miner and how much should be placed on the company, in the case of serious accidents. This is not the point to be blaming Massey Energy for the mine explosion in Montcoal, he said, but added, "They obviously had a lot of violations, and I have some thoughts about how those violations aren't processed as they should be."
Mining accidents should be preventable, given that miners each do what they're supposed to do, but the real world doesn't always work that way, Rockefeller said.
Massey said what excites him about the new training technology is that miners can get the virtual training and see what is supposed to be in the mine, and if they get into an actual mine and don't see those things, they can ask questions of their company.
It's a good first step in a highly sophisticated technology, Rockefeller said.
"The technology exists -- that was the lesson of the morning," he said.