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Brains, Not Brawn, the Path to Improved Safety

By James Sharpe

More smarts, not bigger muscles, is the solution to what ails safety and health in U.S. mining, according to a safety consultant who used to run the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

In a peer-reviewed article published in July, Dave D. Lauriski and his colleague, B. Yang, commented that the Upper Big Branch Mine tragedy reinforced what “is abundantly clear, that now, more than ever, the U.S. must seriously rethink whether its prescriptive regulatory approach can really contribute to improved mine safety and explore other proactive and performance-based alternatives.” Lauriski headed MSHA from May 2001 to November 2004.

As we have noted before in this column, there are shortcomings to the command and control approach embodied in the Mine Act of 1977 and its progeny, the MINER Act of 2006. By encouraging a compliance-only mentality, the approach assumes a safe and healthful mining workplace is one that meets all MSHA mandates. But, as any safety professional will tell you, you can be fully compliant and still have accidents. Why is that? Because “regulations alone cannot cover or even identify all risks,” according to Lauriski and Yang.

Safety professionals have been vocal about another drawback of MSHA’s prescriptive rules: they fail to account for the human factor. For example, some mobile equipment drivers may still not “click it” when operating their vehicles despite clear company policies requiring seatbelt use backed up by severe consequences for violators. Addressing physical hazards alone and not human and organizational factors is like treating symptoms and not root causes, the two authors said.

The prescriptive approach also produces a thick rulebook, which puts off small operators because it is so daunting. Compliance assistance is one way to try and overcome this deficiency. But, as we have seen, command and control focuses on compliance. Compliance assistance then becomes a casualty; many operators don’t get any help, and those few within the regulatory establishment charged with providing it come to feel left out in the cold.

We have also previously noted the hidebound nature of the prescriptive method. Rules tend to get locked in for a long time. Trouble is, the mining environment is ever-changing, and a system not designed to respond nimbly to change quickly becomes obsolete. This is evident in a number of consensus standards in MSHA’s code book that have long since been superseded.

Lauriski and Yang describe performance and systems-based standards as two other approaches the U.S. should consider. The performance-based method prescribes outcomes and gives companies flexibility in how to achieve them. The aggregate sector has embraced this approach by setting goals for stone, sand and gravel operators to cut their injury rates. By setting compliance and injury-reduction goals for operators approaching potential pattern of violation status, MSHA is doing the same thing. Unfortunately, perhaps the biggest drawback of the performance approach is that it shortchanges continuous improvement.

A systems approach overcomes that deficiency. It also addresses human and organizational factors. Leaders who grasp the systems concept quickly come to realize its applicability to other functions of the enterprise, not just safety and health. Done right, it has the potential to make the firm a top performer in all aspects of its business.

The systems approach, though, comes with its own set of problems. It is a complex undertaking that requires considerable resources and a long-term commitment from management. The emphasis in corporate America on quarterly earnings and profits is a potential obstacle. The little guy may not have the requisite resources, a concern Lauriski and Yang point out. Another issue is what a systems approach would impose upon regulators. According to the authors, enforcement personnel would become auditors, not cops. In other words, it would require wholesale change at MSHA. Good luck with that.

Lauriski and Yang say a mix of approaches is probably the optimal way forward. Called “responsive regulation,” its essential tenet is that government should be responsive to how effectively industries can regulate themselves, and then decide accordingly what level of intervention is needed. In other words, say goodbye to one-size-fits-all. Safety self-governance in mining is already evident in reduced injury and fatality rates. A safety systems approach being hammered out at the National Mining Association promises more to come. A momentous breakthrough appears imminent. Let’s seize the moment.