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Mine Operators Hold Key to Safe Workplaces

By James Sharpe

In the June issue, the Healthy Dialogue column “Time to Modernize Mine Safety” drew a response from the CEO of an aggregate mining company. In an e-mail, he said he agreed with my opinion that a good safety program should be risk-based. However, he said I was mistaken when I said the onus for mine safety and health should be squarely on the shoulders of the mine operator.

He said my mistake was in neglecting to mention the importance of what he called the “behavior based component.” Calling the Mine Act’s over-emphasis on the mine operator’s safety responsibilities as its “fatal flaw,” he added, “If we are going to seriously modernize the mine safety law, we have to start with the fundamental understanding that safety is everyone’s responsibility, and then write the law to reflect that reality.”

I couldn’t agree more that the Mine Act under-weighs individual miner’s responsibilities for workplace safety and health. The fact that just 2 ½ pages out of 39 pages of MSHA’s booklet on miners’ rights and responsibilities under the Act illustrates the point. And, although I believe this omission is a serious oversight in the statute, I do not think it is a fatal flaw. The biggest problem with the Mine Act is the compliance-only mentality it encourages. The law needs to be rewritten to require a risk-based approach instead, thereby forcing mine operators to be pro-active in identifying and correcting potential hazards.

Huge Role
Certainly miners have a huge role to play. They have an obligation to pay close attention in training sessions, and speak up when they are asked to do a task for which they are not adequately trained. They also must evaluate a job for potential hazards before they begin work, and otherwise work safely and pay attention to the work of others to assure they are working safely as well. They must report the existence of potential hazards and unsafe behavior. They must follow all safety rules and MSHA standards. They also should take a pro-active role in helping the operator assure the mine is a safe and healthful place to work.

Still, the onus for safety remains with the operator because of the operator’s near universal control, not only over how things are done on mine sites, but also over the attitude that governs how things are done.

For example, if a miner who honestly claims his or her training is insufficient to perform a task experiences managerial retaliation, that person may be less likely to speak up ever again. If a supervisor turns a blind eye to a subordinate who takes shortcuts that boost production, a message is communicated to all employees of management tolerance for potentially unsafe behavior. When unsafe behavior is reported and management takes no action to correct it, another unwholesome message gets expressed.

Of course, there are employees who push the envelope, but even then, the situation remains under the operator’s control through progressive disciplinary measures. However, in an exchange of e-mails, my critic said that is not necessarily so. He cited an example of a vehicle accident by a driver who failed a post-accident drug test. The miner was fired, but after citing a clause in the collective bargaining agreement, the union forced the miner’s reinstatement. The union’s protection of any employee engaged in substance abuse is appalling. The provision clearly has no place in the agreement; after all, the miner’s recklessness behind the wheel could have harmed another union member. Even so, are the operator’s hands completely tied? For instance, could the company still relieve the miner of his driving duties?

Second Example
The CEO also mentioned a second example. In this case, the company was cited by MSHA because a driver left his vehicle unattended without chocking the wheels. The incident occurred despite training by the company several months earlier that had called attention to MSHA’s emphasis in its Rules to Live By program on following safeguards when operating mobile equipment. Clearly, the CEO felt the citation should have gone to the driver rather than to the company. “[M]anagement can’t do everything,” he said.

Here again, though, a key question to ask when this infraction is investigated is, if the driver knew better, why did he violate the standard? If the answer is that he forgot, then disciplinary action may be in order. There must be consequences for at-risk behavior. If the response is that work demands encourage shortcuts, then a more systemic problem may be in play.

Yes, the Mine Act should be amended to place more responsibility on miners for workplace safety. However, with a legislative as polarized as the U.S. Congress, it is a milestone if lawmakers can agree on names for post offices. Mine operators exercise overwhelming control over their mining workplaces and over everyone who works there. The key to a safe and healthful workplace is in their hands.