By James Sharpe
In March, the National Mining Association (NMA) announced a new initiative to improve safety performance using a systems approach. The initiative consists of a pledge and 20 modules that companies who sign on need to work through, and provides a timetable, ending in December 2015, for completing them.
Initially, the aim is to achieve zero fatalities and a 50 percent cut in injuries over the next five years (0:50:5). Although the initiative currently is voluntary, commitments have already been received from 28 big coal and metal/non-metal member companies.
Did you notice how little publicity this noble endeavor received in the national media? The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio carried the story, but beyond them coverage was slim. Perhaps the media believes CORESafety, as the initiative is called, is window dressing. That’s too bad because, as a result, the public is missing out on a big story. This effort is serious and will make a difference.
MSHA was asked to comment and it obliged. The agency lauded NMA, but then quickly turned its statement into an advocacy piece for more authority. It was as though MSHA viewed NMA’s initiative as a political ploy. MSHA’s perspective seems to be that CORESafety is NMA’s attempt to convince Congress that, because the mining industry is taking ownership of safety, lawmakers need not bother writing more mine reform legislation. Yet, ever since the Upper Big Branch (UBB) Mine disaster, taking responsibility for safety is the very thing MSHA Chief Joe Main has been saying mine operators should be doing since MSHA can’t be at every mine all the time.
Truth is NMA’s approach represents a radical, yet welcome, departure from how mine safety has been practiced in this country. Here’s another truth: unlike the enforcement model that MSHA exercises so vigorously, a systems approach holds the potential to get us to zero fatalities. MSHA, which should wholeheartedly jump on this bandwagon, instead asks Congress to prescribe more power pills. The agency best be careful lest CORESafety renders MSHA irrelevant.
The media did give extensive coverage to MSHA’s announcement that 75 of its special investigators were receiving two weeks of training, some by none other than the Federal Bureau of Investigation. MSHA and the FBI, now there’s a unique linkage, one I really hadn’t made until Mark Kuhar, Rock Products’ editor, pointed it out to me. The G-men have done many good deeds over the years, and still do, but they’ve also famously stepped over the line now and then. This awareness makes the instruction they’re giving MSHA a trifle unsettling.
Part of the training is to teach investigators how to ask questions during interviews. Recall that the NIOSH independent panel charged with evaluating MSHA’s review of its performance at UBB faulted agency accident investigators for asking leading questions and being unfocused at times in their interrogations. Had MSHA investigators questions been more expansive, they just might have gained additional valuable insight into what went on at UBB.
They could take a lesson about direct questioning from Circuit Court Judge Irene Berger. During a plea hearing in her court in March, former UBB Superintendent Gary May admitted to receiving advance notice of MSHA inspections. Berger then asked May point-blank, “Who did you act with in committing these acts?” Her intent was to get at any and all people involved, including any government operatives. May told her that MSHA inspectors told mine officials “they’d be back tomorrow or where they were going.” If so, MSHA inspectors also violated the law prohibiting advance notice. It will be interesting to see what prosecutors do with that revelation.
The other thing about advance notice is that MSHA has suspected it has been going on for years at some mines, according to agency investigators. Keeping hazards off examination books operators are required to maintain is another chronic problem that first surfaced after an explosion in Alabama more than a decade ago.
Since at least 2006, when a deadly fire erupted at Massey’s Alma No. 1 Mine, safety at Massey mines has been suspect. But MSHA didn’t lower the boom on the company until UBB went boom. Why not?
The late Sen. Robert Byrd said after UBB that the accident meant MSHA had much to answer for. We agree. But the likelihood we’ll get those answers diminishes with each passing day.
James Sharpe holds a master’s degree in environmental health sciences and is certified in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene, health and safety.