Principal Research Engineer, Pittsburgh Mining Research Division
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Led game-changing research over three decades that improved lighting in mines, advanced rescue techniques and reduced accidents and injuries
Mines are dark, dirty and dangerous. Each year, mining machines kill an average of 13 workers and injure more than 1,000 others. At least 1,300 additional injuries are caused by slips, trips and falls—resulting in an average of 64 lost work days per injury.
John Sammarco has made improving lighting in underground mines his life’s work so miners can see hazards better, helping them stay safe and alive.
A research engineer for 30 years with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Sammarco leads the research and development of technologies and devices that improve visibility in mines as well as the lighting for escape mechanisms used in case of mine disasters.
A major contribution by Sammarco’s is the LED cap lamp, a light attached to a miner’s helmet that uses light-emitting diode technology. This innovation has “revolutionized the way we do lighting in mining,” said Rich Unger, NIOSH’s deputy branch chief.
The LED cap lamp has expanded miners’ peripheral vision and boosted their ability to detect trip hazards up to 94 percent, and reduced by up to 79 percent the potential for getting fatally pinned or struck by machines used in the mines.
“John’s breakthrough idea was recognizing that changing the spectrum [or color] of light might provide better illumination and greater safety,” said Jeffrey Kohler, professor and chairman of mining engineering at Pennsylvania State University. “His research was brilliant. It impacts every miner every day.”
Sammarco’s research also found that by attaching LED lights to equipment, miners can react more quickly to machine movements. In a cramped mine, “workers can die if they don’t know a machine is going to move a certain way,” Unger said.
LED lights are sturdier than standard bulbs because they have no breakable glass or filaments, greatly reducing maintenance and related injuries. They also last longer—50,000 hours versus 1,000 to 3,000 hours.
Testing also revealed that changing the spectrum of light can make it easier for aging eyes to see hazards. That’s important because the average age of the 340,000 miners in the United States is now older than 43.
In addition, Sammarco and his team of researchers have been studying how to improve rescue methods during mine disasters. He invented a lifeline, not yet in use, that glows and will measure temperature changes to pinpoint where a miner is holding on, directing rescue teams where to go.
His research has determined which colors are most visible in dark, smoky conditions. This information is available for manufacturers for future use when choosing colors and materials for worker uniforms, marking mining equipment and designating escape routes.
Sammarco’s interest in mine safety comes naturally. He hails from a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania, and both this grandfathers were miners.
His biggest challenges stemmed from meager funding and mining companies’ lack of interest in improving illumination. Sammarco was persistent and resourceful in overcoming those obstacles, building his lab at NIOSH’s Pittsburgh facility from the ground up. He stretched limited dollars by making test equipment from everyday objects such as garage door openers and model airplane parts. “You’ll see some bizarre apparatus in our lab,” Unger said.
Sammarco also works with mine operators, manufacturers, labor unions and government agencies to ensure his efforts solve problems and produce something that can be used.
“He’s a highly effective partner with industry and other stakeholders,” said Timothy Burgess, vice president of engineering for J.H. Fletcher & Co, a mining equipment manufacturer. Burgess has worked with Sammarco on LED lighting for the machines his company makes.
While Sammarco is recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on mine lighting, and his work has led to important changes in equipment and regulations, his lasting achievement is greater safety for miners.
Dr. Margaret Kitt, NIOSH’s deputy director for programs, said Sammarco’s research and innovations aren’t just relevant to mining, but to the oil and gas industry, the airline industry, emergency responders and others—that is, to anyone who needs to see hazards in confined spaces.