Coal's Power: New technology makes mines safer

Methane gas detection has evolved under Industrial Scientific

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Third in a series .

In the earliest days of coal mining, when a working lamp and a canary were the best safety tools available to the men who entered the dark underground shafts, it was common knowledge that many would never return.

"When you cut coal, you liberate methane," explained Justin K. McElhattan, president and CEO of Findlay-based gas detection company Industrial Scientific Corp.

"In many other industries you typically only have bad gas hazards when you have something going wrong. In coal mining, literally every second that you're cutting coal, you have to deal with methane escaping and with what you're going to do with that."

Today, Industrial Scientific is taking a high-tech approach combined with behavioral observation in an effort to eliminate deaths in coal mines and all other workplaces.

"There's a tremendous amount of insight that a gas detector can deliver. If we're not getting that insight out of the instrument, we might as well just give them a canary," said Mr. McElhattan.

As late as the 1940s, thousands of miners each year died because of methane gas poisoning and explosions in coal mines, according to David D. Wagner, the company's director of product knowledge. By 1949, enforcement of new labor laws helped lower the count to hundreds of deaths annually.

The bedrock of Western Pennsylvania could be seen as coal, a key natural resource that has long been an economic generator. The energy industry may be changing but coal still runs through many parts of life here.

• Sunday: A long history, a key industry

• Monday: The rules about your coal

• Tuesday: High-tech under the ground

• Wednesday: A concentration of expertise

• Thursday: Moving the goods

• Friday: A business in safety

In the 1970s, the Kentucky-based mining supply company National Mine Service Co. formed a research division that would later become Industrial Scientific to create portable methane gas detectors for underground mines. In the past, miners had measured the height of flames in glass safety lamps to gauge the amount of methane in an area or used heavy catalytic combustion gas monitors.

In 1985, National Mine Service sold off the research division and it began operating as Industrial Scientific.

Since that time, the company has created monitors designed to address the needs of several industries, but also has focused on enhancing gas detection technology in ways that features closer monitoring of clients and the products being used.

Several years ago, Industrial Scientific-owned analytics company, Predictive Solutions, also in Findlay, joined forces with a team of Carnegie Mellon University researchers who had helped create IBM's "Jeopardy"-winning supercomputer Watson to develop predictive analytic software for its detectors.

In 2004, Industrial Scientific unveiled iNet, a system linking gas detectors to Industrial Scientific's database via the Internet.

Customers who purchase iNet services place gas detectors into docking stations that can be housed in their headquarters to analyze the readings and send the information back to Industrial Scientific. The system allows Industrial Scientific to monitor the number and types of alarms activated on a monitor to see whether a person is properly checking the alarm and to assess for patterns or persistent problems with the equipment or those using the equipment.

Sold as "gas detection as a service," iNet is available for a 48-month subscription that includes gas detectors as part of the package.

A prime example of the service's usefulness came when Industrial Scientific reviewed a report of one company's alarms over a year only to discover that two individuals in that company accounted for 10 percent of gas alarms activated.

"Those people walked out of that meeting saying, 'OK, we need to go have a conversation with those two people to understand if we have a training issue, a hazard issue, a behavior issue or where there are condition issues we need to fix,' " said Mr. McElhattan.

"Do I know that that meeting saved those people's lives? No, I don't, but there's a high potential somebody was going to get hurt without that insight."

Inside and out of the coal industry, Industrial Scientific's efforts haven't gone unnoticed. The company has seen so much growth over the past few years that last year it had to expand its Oakdale manufacturing facility and move several offices to RIDC Park West in Findlay.

The privately owned company has more than 900 employees. RKI Instruments of Union City, Calif., is one of the company's top competitors and Illinois-based business supplier Grainger Inc. is one of its biggest clients.

The company was recognized by the Pittsburgh Technology Council as the Advanced Manufacturer of the Year during this year's Tech 50 Awards.

Although Industrial Scientific's goal of "eliminating death in the workplace by the end of this century" might seem farfetched, Mr. Wagner said employees at all levels believe they can and will make it happen.

To emphasize the point, he pointed to a poster of the 29 miners who died at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010 that hangs on a whiteboard in the company's engineering department as a source of inspiration.

"This is why we do what we do," he said.

Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652. First Published December 27, 2011 5:00 AM


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