By Randy K. Logsdon
It was a voice from the past. I turned and looked upon a face that seemed vaguely familiar. “Turk?,” I asked. “Yes, it’s me,” was the response. “How long has it been?” We found a table, sat down and began to reminisce.
Turk and I worked as mine safety specialists in what seems like a previous life. We’d lost track of each other, but soon got down to business. Turk was always outspoken – opinionated, some would say.
I started the topic with what seemed like a safe question. “So what do you think of the dilemma the metal/non-metal industry is experiencing? fifteen fatal injuries already this year – three alone on August 3.” He gave me that look like “are you kidding me?” I continued: “Well MSHA seems to be really concerned. They’re really worried about the trend. They’ve restarted the walk and talk thing and issued a new policy letter on workplace exams. If we all just did better workplace exams, we can turn the trend around.”
He paused to take a deep breath, still had that look. “Look,” he said. “What do those three incidents have in common – the same square on the calendar? One was in Virginia, another in Nevada and the third in North Dakota. One was at a granite operation, another in an underground gold mine and the third in a sand and gravel yard. One truck driver was killed by the structural failure of a silo, an implement on a drilling machine struck another and an unstable face that sloughed off a stockpile covered up the third. The three victims were 18, 26 and 64. According to early reports, their experience ranged from six weeks to four years.”
Turk was on a roll.
My next comment was much more daring. “Well why don’t you tell me what your really think?” His face lit up. “Randy,” he said, “don’t you remember the column you wrote in Rock Products a few months ago? You started out talking about Tip O’Neil, the former Speaker of the House. I thought you made a lot of sense then. You said that we should pay attention to what’s going on nationwide, but that safety is really a local issue. Each operation is working under a different set of circumstances – a different set of risks. You said that the local operators are best situated to evaluate those risks and let that determine the best safety focus.”
My recollection must have been apparent because he added: “You do remember, don’t you?” I nodded.
“Listen,” he continued, “I’m not trying to be callous about this. My heart goes out to the families of each and every one of those miners. But MSHA can only do so much. They’re tied to enforcing the Act [Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977] and to 30 CFR. Yes, they are putting a lot of stock in improving the quality of workplace exams – and yes, I’m sure that we do miss a lot of hazards out there. But even if every workplace exam was done perfectly, all that tells the miner is what the physical hazards are – the environment. It does not help pick up on the hazards we bring into an otherwise safe environment through the work we perform. You’ve got a perfectly safe stockpile and you begin to load off of the pile. The product is a bit damp and it won’t drop like you expected. The loader operator steps out of the loader and it covers him up. A work place exam is not going to catch that. That hazard was created by the work.”
I was about to say something profound but he stopped me.
“You know,” he added, “One of the wisest statements Congress made is in the preamble to the Act. In 1977 they said that the safety and health of America’s miners is the responsibility of the operators with the assistance of the miners. It’s not MSHA’s responsibility – it’s ours – all ours! Together. Until we all (operators and miners) really act on that responsibility, I’m afraid we’ll continue to grieve the loss of miners.”
About that time, they were calling my flight. I apologized for having to cut our reunion so short. We exchanged business cards and promised to stay in touch. But I had a lot to think about.
* Turk exists only in the mind of the author.