LANCASTER — Mine Shields Inc. is still in the process of receiving American certification for its refuge chambers, designed to provide food, water and breathable air for trapped miners. But that isn’t stopping the company from pursuing safety certification internationally.
Chinese company Triolink is flying a 6-foot tall, 23-foot long Mine Shields chamber to Beijing to begin four weeks of testing for the country’s material application certification. Striving to meet these qualifications gives Mine Shields a better chance of expanding operations and employment, Mine Shields CEO Connie Hendren said.
If the company secures certification in America or China, Hendren plans to hire 150 to 200 more employees, who would make $12 to $15 an hour plus benefits. If Mine Shields meets requirements in both countries, the company’s Lancaster warehouse also would add a 50,000 square-foot expansion on adjacent property it already owns, Hendren said.
Tests and certification procedures in America and China should wrap late this year, and hiring would likely begin in early 2012, he said.
In the meantime, Mine Shields will focus on getting Triolink the chambers to begin testing.
“They want it right now,” Hendren said of the company that chose the vastly more expensive air route to China over sea shipping. “This company has put millions of dollars into this venture, and they don’t even have a unit yet.”
Hendern said Triolink’s investment shows confidence in Mine Shield’s product. Though about 20 companies produce refuges for China, only two have temporary permits to sell to the country’s 22,000 mines, and Mine Shields would be the first to receive a permanent permit if it passes tests, he said.
New safety regulations require each Chinese mine to install two refuge units in the next four years, so Mine Shields could be in the running to sell up to 44,000 chambers, he said. The company already has a contract to ship 200 chambers to Triolink in 12 months, pending certification.
But the chambers first must withstand 45 psi of pressure, simulating a mine explosion. The amount is three times the 15 psi the American Mine Safety and Health Administration requires the chambers to endure, so the steel and other materials used for the Chinese chambers are thicker and heavier, Hendren said.
Computer testing shows that chambers can withstand the Chinese pressure requirements, but material application officials must physically witness durability and conduct other tests, including locking 10 miners in the refuge chamber to prove it can provide livable conditions, he said.
“They want them to breathe the air, eat the food and drink the water for 96 hours,” Hendern said.
He will travel to China later this month to meet with more then 50 prospective buyers, and Mine Shields lead engineer Brad Hall will stay there for the entirety of testing, Hendren said.
“I told him, ‘Don’t come home until we’re approved,’” Hendren said.
Hall said he’s upbeat about the company’s chances of receiving certification and equally excited about Triolink’s interest in Mine Shied’s chambers.
“China does not have a good record for safety, and to see them come to us to try to learn to do it right, that means a lot to us,” he said.
While Hall works in China, other members of the Mine Shields team will prepare for the final MSHA test set between Nov. 10 and 21 in New Mexico. The refuge chambers designed for American mines already have passed more tests than any other company and will be eligible for certification if they complete that final pressure assessment, Hendren said.
Mine Shields potentially could sell one refuge chamber to every mine in the country now. But a federal mandate requires once a company has produced MSHA-certified refuge chambers, all mines must have one chamber for every 2,500 feet of mine.
If Mine Shields gains certification, Hendren said MSHA likely will look to certify another company shortly after to avoid exclusivity. But he still intends to hire at least 150 more employees.
Garrard County Economic Development Director Nathan Mick, who visited Mine Shields on Monday with Judge-Executive John Wilson and other county officials, called the company an “economic development hat-trick” because it occupied a previously empty 60,000-square-foot building, created new manufacturing jobs and improved the safety of miners. Mine Shields’ certification in American or China would improve upon these feats, he said.
“It will be one of the best thing to happen to Garrard County in a very, very long time,” he said.