Training to go underground

Trent Ernst, Editor
While Northern Lights College is working on setting up a training course for underground coal miners, the Kentucky Coal Academy has been training miners since 2005. 
Since they started, they’ve trained over 55,000 people either from scratch or in annual refresher courses. 
Gary Whisman is the executive director for the training institute, which has four academies. He says their focus is not on training people for one specific job or type of mine (for instance, longwall mining), but to instill in them the fundamentals in order to do any job in the industry. “You don’t train people to do one thing, you train them to be qualified miners,” says Whisman. “Students take a 40-hour class for underground, or a 24 hour class for surface. Once you take a test, you become an apprentice, or what’s called an inexperienced miner.”
The inexperienced miner then spends 45 days as an apprentice. “After 45 days, you become an experienced miner,” says Whisman. “That qualifies people to work in an underground mine. While they’re working, they have to stay with an experienced miner.”
Whisman says that after 45 days, the miners are experienced, but not experts. They know enough to stay safe underground, and will earn their experienced miner card. “It’s a lot like driving a car,” he says. “You get your learners, then you get your operators license, and you get better with time. You never stop learning.”
Any additional task they do, says Whisman, the worker will have to receive additional training, whether it be a shield operator, sheerer operator or any other job. “This could take several weeks or several months, it depends on the person and the rate at which they learn.”
He says the reason the academy doesn’t focus on training people in specific techniques or equipment is because every mine is unique. “That’s usually handled at the mine, because the training is mine-specific. You have to train people specifically for the equipment they’ll be using, to the dangers they will be exposed to.”
This is even more apparent in longwall mines, like the Murray River Project will be. “Each longwall system will be designed specifically for the mine it will be used in,” says Whisman. “You have to set up for the seam, for the support density, for the length of the cut the sheerer will be making. The sheerer will need to be designed for the size of the seam; the number of shields and the style are going to be designed for that mine. 
Whisman says that most mining companies are looking for people with a few years experience, but because so much of the learning is specific for that mine, it is often better to train a new worker to do the job from the very start, rather than to try and take someone who has experience working in a different style of mine. “If I take a person who has worked on an advancing unit, and try to put him on a longwall unit, it will take a lot longer to train him. But if I have a person  I am training while I’m setting up the longwall, they will know the full gamut. They know what’s happening. If I have a guy who sees why the sheerer goes here, why the shields go there, it’s easier to train that person because they don’t know anything else and can focus on this job specifically.
“Let’s say you have a repairman. He is going to be in a completely different world. It’s a bit like working on a Chevrolet then moving on to a Ferrari. Having that repairman there during the set-up allows him to see how things are set up, what connects to what. As this longwall is setting up, you’ll have plenty of time to train people up. It’s a very quick learning pace once you’re hands on. If you get them from start, and they learn everything from the beginning, everyone is on the same page. “
As well, says Whisman, the company that provides the equipment also provides people to come in and help get it set up. These people, he says, are an invaluable resource.
Of course you need the experience to set up that new mine, so having a core leadership group is equally important as having young, eager, safety-conscious miners. “You’d want a longwall miner coordinator who knows the day to day operation, maybe two. Every longwall is different, so it’s tough to say. You’d also want someone in maintenance who understands the specifics of how everything fits together. You need to have people who can set up the support panels, the headgate and tailgate, who determine what size face you’re going to have. You don’t just drop $20-million and say ‘Send me a longwall.’ Everything has to be designed to the mine. It’s easier to put that in initially rather than retrofitting.”