A new University of Arizona-based training center has formed to improve how students and miners are taught the science and art of mine safety.

Within the next month, the Western Mining Safety and Health Training Resource Center will start operations at the San Xavier Mining Laboratory, just west of the Asarco Mission Mine complex about 20 miles south of Tucson.

The goal is to teach not just local students and mine employees, but mine safety students and professionals all over the West.

"Accidents continue to happen, but we are looking into not just the safety but the health of the miners," said Mary Poulton, head of UA's mining-geological engineering department and director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources.

"We want to make sure you go home at end of day as healthy as when you came to work," she said.

The UA recently won a $1.6 million grant for the center from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a part of the federal Centers for Disease Control. Four UA academic departments, the state Mine Inspector's Office and the Colorado School of Mines are collaborating to operate the center.

During the three-year federal grant, the center expects to provide upgraded training to tens of thousands of mining students, rank-and-file mineworkers and salaried professionals, said Ros Hill, the San Xavier laboratory's director and a professor of practice in the UA's mining and geologic engineering department.

The San Xavier laboratory already is essentially a classroom for about 110 UA undergrads and grad students on three underground levels going down 150 feet and containing a shaft, a hoist house, a shop building, a headframe and a hoist. Mining and mine safety have been taught to UA students at the San Xavier Mine since the late 1950s.

The new center will deal with mine safety issues unique to the West, covering mining of at least 26 different minerals. The training will be aimed at hard rock metal and sand, gravel and stone mining as opposed to the coal mining that predominates in the East. The center also will offer classes at mines and training facilities across the West.

"Our mission is to teach students how to work safely and efficiently in a mine environment and to instill a safety ethic that can be translated to industry upon graduation," Hill said.

On the center's agenda will be creating a local emergency mine rescue team to dispatch people to a mining accident scene if injury or death occurs. It will start after all team members are fully trained and center officials feel confident about their capabilities.

"We would like to be able to respond to emergencies in this area (starting) in 18 months," Hill said.

Other priorities include:

• Training people to use sophisticated safety equipment.

• Performing computer simulations of fatal accidents, to make them less likely in the future.

• Developing training methods and materials for miners of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including those who don't speak English or have limited English skills.

• Providing more information about the health effects of mineworkers' exposure to contaminants such as mercury and radon that are used in mines or naturally occur there.

• Creating a database so its training materials can be distributed over the Web.

One innovation will be "fatalgrams," using computer gaming software to re-enact fatal accidents.

"What you can do is use that fatalgram as a learning experience, and show things you could have done differently to avoid the fatality," Hill said.

Despite many improvements in mining technology and work environments, mining remains one of the country's most dangerous occupations, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said in announcing the grant.

The mining fatality rate is six times higher than the national average for other industries. There were also 7,742 nonfatal mining injuries, resulting in lost work time, reported to the federal government nationally in 2007. At a rate of 2.5 per 100 full-time-equivalent workers, the industry total was 426,219 days lost from work that year.

More than 65 percent of all miners experience occupational hearing loss by the time they retire, the agency said.

With demand rising for coal, copper and other minerals and mined goods, many health and safety problems in the industry will increase due to high levels of noise, methane gas, dust and other problems, NIOSH said.

Once the grant runs out, Hill said he hopes the agency will offer it again so the UA safety center can be permanent.

A UA mining engineering major who has led training sessions at the San Xavier Mine says the new center has the potential to create research, development and training opportunities for mine rescue efforts across the West.

Robert Tracy, who is 24 and close to graduating, also helps with day-to-day operations, logistics and maintenance work as a manager at the San Xavier Mine, where students get weekend training in drilling, blasting and excavation. In December, Tracy will take a mine engineering job at Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold in Silver City, N.M.

He noted that incidents such as the October rescue of 33 trapped copper and gold miners in Chile - near a second mine where two workers died in an explosion this week - put the issue of mine safety and rescue at the forefront.

Mine fatalities

Arizona: two each in 2010, 2009 and 2008, three in 2007 and one in 2006.

Nationally: 34 in 2009, 53 in 2008, 67 in 2007 and 73 in 2006.

SOURCES: Arizona Mine Inspector's Office, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.