ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF LABOR FOR MINE SAFETY AND HEALTH JOSEPH A. MAIN TALKS IMPACT INSPECTIONS, LOW FATALITIES AND BOOTS ON THE GROUND.
By Mark Kuhar
Talk about MSHA’s monthly impact inspections. How are you targeting some of the operations you visit?
We have criteria we use for selecting mines and this is something I put in place right after our Big Branch tragedy in 2010. Essentially we target mines that have particular problems, such as high accident rates or conditions that aren’t getting fixed at the mine. There are about 13 criteria that districts are supposed to use to identify facilities that have a problem with compliance. The real benefit of this is, if you look at both the impact inspection program coupled with the pattern of violations program, the one that I retooled back in 2010, as being a bit tougher on operations with these outrageous records, it has led to an overall improvement in the mining industry.
When we did our first screening of mines including coal and metal mines back in 2010, we identified 51 mines that met our screening criteria and as we have moved forward, last year there was only one mine in that screening criteria, same one we began back in 2010. Of the S&S violation stuff we cited, which is the more serious violations, the number of violations of the top 200 mines in the country, both coal and metal /nonmetal, nonmetal has fallen 40 percent.
I think one of the reasons we do the impact inspections is to get on a problem mine pretty quickly. The advantage of this is, if you stop letting these mines amass enormous violation records, you see overall improvement. And if you look at 2010 – it actually goes back further than that – every year we have been dropping the injury rate in this country in the coal and metal/nonmetal mining sectors.
In 2015, we saw the lowest number of mining deaths ever recorded in a year. How does it feel to accomplish that on your watch?
The reason I took this job was to do everything I could to make the mining industry a safer place for miners and their families, and the mining industry. And I knew that if we could get people focused, that was doable. It isn’t only an enforcement program we carry out here … a lot of outreach and communication that we do helps us get there. There’s a bigger story inside the 2015 numbers, and it is that we had the safest years ever in 2011, 2012 and then fiscal year 2013 in the metal/nonmetal industry. It was a place no one had ever been before; the industry had never been there. But mining deaths started to increase in the fall of 2013 and really we had to spend a lot of energy and time and refocus everybody to get that trend reversed. We then went through a period from October 2013 to August 2015 where we had 52 mining deaths. It was one of the worst stretches in modern times and it was a call to arms to our own agency and to the mining industry that we all needed to beef up what we’re doing to turn that around.
How did you respond?
We launched a pretty aggressive enforcement/education/outreach effort and we did a lot of walk and talks. I had a lot of people from our coal enforcement segment come over to help the other segments. We really just turned our whole training program into a huge outreach program for a long period of time. We were starting to make progress, and on Aug. 3, 2015, we had three mining deaths that day. That was the first time we had that many mine deaths in metal/non-metal mines at three different mining operations since about 2002. The next morning I got my staff together and we launched the most aggressive planning probably that the agency has ever undertaken. We ramped up boots on the ground for every available person to look hard at the things that caused those deaths and to visit every mine site we that could for walks and talks.
Did you target any operations?
We did some strategic targeting of mines that had particular problems and the very next day on Aug. 5, 2015, I called all the stakeholders together and told them we really needed to up our game. And I tell you, I’ve never seen more involvement by the mining industry, more outreach, more focus on really dealing with safety problems than any time in my history. I mean it was all hands on deck by all of us. And so we had 15 total deaths up to August 3rd. We ended up the next five months with only two more fatalities. One is too many in anybody’s book. But we withstood the deadliest month in October, the time of the year where we have seasonal operations closing down, people doing different kinds of work they weren’t trained for we had no fatals that month. And as we sit here today, I don’t know how long this will stand, but, as of February, we just went through six months in the toughest period of the year if you look at history in the metal/nonmetal segment with only two mining deaths. That’s a half a year.
How can the industry keep the momentum going?
One of these things we’ve leaned in the mining industry, one thing we have to do better, is to keep doing workplace examinations to make sure they’re checking for hazards and getting them fixed so miners aren’t exposed, and we really need to train these miners for the hazards they’re going to encounter and make sure they’re able to do the jobs and avoid injury and illness from those hazards. On January 13th I called mining industry stakeholders all back together and thanked them for what they did and let them know we finally figured out that this road map is more that just aggressive “boots on the ground.” I saw them looking hard at those 54 mining deaths that we’ve had since October 2013. If you take care of that universe you’ve pretty well taken care of the most serious problems that’s out there. Making sure every day that we’re looking hard at that.
I think it’s a good thing too for everyone to expect that somebody may be showing up tomorrow. And I think that’s the reason the “boots on the ground” approach we’re doing, helps. I think we’ve had a lot better attention and examinations and the support of the mining industry to make this happen. So, you know the 2015 story was just the beginning and the question is how long can we sustain what we’ve been able to construct here in terms of having the kind of health and safety record that in the past, folks only dreamed about. And like I say, as long as I’m here, you know I intend to keep that ball moving forward and keep doing the things we have been doing to get us there.