Despite stereotypes born out of hundreds of years of tradition, modern-day coal mining in the United States is much more than tough men with picks and shovels donning headlamps. In fact, the complex electrical equipment used in today's mines provides jobs for 12,650 certified electricians, making up about 12% of all mining industry employees. In the last five years, 15 of these electrical workers have been killed and 152 injured in electrical accidents.

To address electrical safety in U.S. mines, the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), headquartered in Arlington, Va., put on its first National Electrical Troubleshooting Contest for electrical workers in the mining industry in October. Seventeen finalists from four different states competed in regional and state competitions to qualify for this national competition. Judged based on a written test along with a hands-on, timed, simulated challenge, contestants were given 25 minutes to troubleshoot and properly ground fault test an underground power center.

“One of the challenging parts is a lot of people watching you,” says Bryan Jude, the winner of this year's competition.

An electrical worker for the past 17 years, Jude is currently an electrician for Rockspring Development at Camp Creek Mine in Kentucky. “I think the troubleshooting contest is really good for the industry because it refreshes you on the right way to do things … like an inspector would do … and you get scored on that heavily,” he says.

Ray McKinney, administrator of coal mine safety and health with MSHA, agrees. “It creates an opportunity to simulate a real-life situation in a safe environment, without a catastrophic result,” he says. “By taking the test and studying, it's just a good refresher for them on the laws and the safe practices that you should exercise each day when you're working with electricity.”

McKinney notes that most electrical-related injuries and deaths in the coal mining industry are the result of not following proper lockout/tagout procedures. Stray electrical currents and contact with live wires have also caused death and injury in recent years.

MSHA plans to repeat the troubleshooting contest next year and hopefully take its show on the road. Using a new van designed with simulation equipment for the hands-on portion of the contest, MSHA plans to localize its contest throughout the country.