By Randy K. Logsdon
Just in case you’ve been locked up in a cave for the last nine months or so, MSHA has responded to an increase in the number of fatal injury incidents that have been occurring in the metal/non-metal segment of the mining industry.
The agency was pleased (although not satisfied) with the record low number of fatal injuries reported in 2011 and 2012 but is now appealing to the industry to raise awareness in an effort to reverse a more recent trend – an increase in fatal injuries. The agency’s full court press includes a series of conference calls with stakeholders, focused enforcement, and various methods aimed at communicating trends and best practices to miners.
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Certainly the apparent increase in fatal injuries is troubling, but there is an interesting paradox developing. From 2007 through 2013 (2014 computations have not yet been published) we see a steady and significant decrease of the total reportable incident rate (TRIR).
In metal/non-metal that rate (the number of injuries per 200,000 manhours) has dropped from 3.02 to 2.11– a 30 percent improvement. In the coal sector, a similar trend produces a 26 percent improvement and overall (both sectors combined) the continuous improvement yields a 28 percent improvement.
While MSHA has been focused intently on raising awareness in the effort to reduce the fraction of fatal injuries (an important fraction), the industry has quietly been lowering the incidence of all serious (reportable) injuries across the board. That reduction is really quite impressive and the mining industry should be acknowledged for that accomplishment.
But what about those troublesome fatals? Perhaps the same processes being employed successfully by operators over the last seven years will eventually influence the fatal fraction. Perhaps not.
One might argue that an injury incident is an injury incident. Are the consequences (or severity) of the incident relevant in accident prevention? Shouldn’t the same application of safeguards, PPE, training, warnings, inspection, SOP, etc. apply whether preventing a potentially fatal injury or a medical-only injury? Certainly we’ve all heard (and said) that the only difference between a serious injury and a minor injury or near miss is a matter of timing or position. I suggest that there is another factor – energy.
If one stumbles and falls while walking across the yard, the resulting injury is likely to be a knee abrasion. Conversely, if one stumbles and falls from a scaffold 30-ft. above the ground, the energy generated in the descent will likely produce fatal injuries.
A 2-in. rock ejected from a screen tower may bounce off a miner’s hard hat and perhaps momentarily stun the miner. A 6-in. rock in the same trajectory may produce a much more severe injury. Apply this concept to other forms of energy – heat, electricity, compressed air, hydraulics and mechanical energy.
If the defining difference between fatal and non-fatal is the level of energy, then we can identify those conditions and locations where the consequences of unintended exposure are more likely to result in serious or fatal injuries. Once identified, we can focus those same effective prevention strategies on mitigating the exposure of people to high-energy situations. If successful, we should then see the fatal injury incident rate again begin to fall.