By James Sharpe
The year 2011 departs as a disappointment because it did not end, as hoped, with the fewest fatalities ever in the U.S. mining industry. Last year got off to a promising start. One fatality is too many; still, by June 30 just 13 miners had been killed, a mark that would have set a record had it not been exceeded the rest of the year.
Then the roof fell in. Two miners were lost in separate accidents seven months apart at the same mine. Inside of six weeks, 11 miners perished on the job, including four within four days and consecutive fatalities three days running. The toll nearly equaled the number of deaths during the entire first six months. Nearly all of these fatalities were preventable.
Now we are in a new year, and with it the optimism that comes from starting with a clean slate. But that makes 2012 no different than any other year at this time. Is there reason to believe things will be different this time around? Call me a Pollyanna, but I think the answer is yes.
Most fatalities now occur in coal, and the coal sector remains stunned by the Upper Big Branch (UBB) tragedy. The sector was becoming increasingly attuned to safety after multiple disasters in 2006 and 2007. The accidents were alarming in their own right because they were so preventable. But the sector also found itself pushed hard by an angry Congress and a regulatory authority that had put on the gloves, even during a Republican administration. Then, like a blindside blow to the head, the sector was brought to its knees by UBB and a rapid series of accident investigations that told of a culture so grounded in profit that the tragedy was inevitable.
Shocking as UBB was, still more sobering was the realization that other mines were being operated just like UBB, even after the disaster. MSHA discovered this to its dismay, and has reacted quite appropriately by going back to these mines time and again through its impact inspection program. Unable to take the heat, five or six are now gone, according to MSHA Coal Administrator Kevin Stricklin. Any others that still “don’t get it,” to use agency phrasing, need either to get it or to go.
Despite its best intentions, MSHA is seen by some as part of the problem. After all, UBB did happen on its watch. To the extent that agency inspectors continue to miss the small picture and its managers consistently overlook the big picture, it will remain an obstacle to mine safety.
Still, the agency is not complacent, and the technological changes it is trying to drive – proximity detection on mobile equipment and real-time dust monitors – will have a lasting positive impact. If done right, so will its effort to strengthen its pattern of violation enforcement tool.
The MINER Act and MSHA’s revised civil penalty scheme were draconian measures designed to force change upon the industry. There have been no legislative measures since, but the Democrats are demanding action. A new bipartisan law may yet come in this election year from lawmakers sensitive to an electorate that feels for the men and women who toil under hazardous conditions to keep their lights on.
A new measure is certain if another big tragedy strikes. A mid-level operative at the UBB Mine has been convicted of violating the law, and more indictments are likely to follow. A $209 million settlement with the successor mine owner also was forged with the well-meaning intent to force change, although it is not likely to achieve much.
Astute to the handwriting on the wall, the National Mining Association (NMA) is developing a safety and health management system that is expected to be unveiled by this spring. The hope is it will serve as a template for the entire industry. It will have a positive impact, but only if NMA issues it as a member mandate. I think it will.
My optimism derives from the interplay of these forces. But more powerfully, there is general recognition that most accidents are preventable. There is also a growing realization that zero fatalities are possible. In recent years, there has been a focus on changing at-risk behavior by miners. Now UBB has brought home the importance of corporate culture in creating a work-safe environment. The pieces are all there, they just need to be put together in a management system.
U.S. mines are not the safest in the world. But they can be. In a capitalist system such as ours, the profit motive is paramount. Many see this as in conflict with safety. Sophisticated mine owners see it differently. The most profitable companies are the best run. Running best means many things, but a key component is a healthy workforce contributing to the company’s bottom line in a safe work environment. When all mine owners come to this mindset, the American mining industry will rule the world in safety.