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Tough Talk Won’t Improve Mine Safety

By James Sharpe

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis made comments worth repeating to the entire mining community when she spoke to the Board of Directors of the National Mining Association (NMA) recently.

Solis’ tough talk made it very clear that mine operators – and operators alone – are responsible for the health and safety of their workforce. No one would disagree, as long as operators are able to discharge that responsibility without government interference. Her point is a veiled reference to charges by Massey Energy Co. that it could not control the air inside the Upper Big Branch Mine because of MSHA-driven changes to the mine’s ventilation plan. MSHA denies Massey’s allegation.  
The controversy remains unresolved. Neither side has really tipped its hand, probably because the matter has gone to litigation. So we will have to wait a year or more for resolution. Of course, that assumes there is no appeal.
Solis also called on producers whose mines are run safely to hold their colleagues accountable who run mines that aren’t safe. No one wants to feel the harsh bite of a generic response by the government to the outrageous conduct of a single outlaw operator. So there is incentive to police the ranks.  But how is that to be done? Solis offered no guidance.

Trade associations seem like the natural place to start. Indeed, NMA, the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association and others have developed best safety practice tools for their members and non-members alike. But because these best practices are voluntary, they depend for implementation on the willingness of operators to adopt them. Trade groups cannot risk losing members by imposing their recommendations. Even if that hurdle could be overcome, how can associations influence non-members? Everyone has to be on-board to prevent the uncooperative from gaining a competitive advantage.

The American Chemistry Council, formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association, has led a vast improvement in safety in the chemical industry through its Responsible Care program. The experience should be studied, but the chemical industry may be too different from mining for effective comparisons to be made.

MSHA could aid in the process by publicizing the bad actors. In fact, the agency has said it would do just that under its revised pattern of violations program. In addition, a new disclosure law requires that serious MSHA violations be reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission on forms accessible to the public.  The requirement, though, is limited to publicly traded firms. Both moves are an essential first step, but by themselves they are not enough.

Solis also made her perception of MSHA clear. She called it an enforcement agency and a regulatory authority. Absent was any mention of compliance assistance, education and training, safety and health, or technical support. No wonder the Small Mine Office is disappearing and that little has been heard about the SLAM and START risk assessment/management programs MSHA promoted just a few years ago.  
Partnering and working together still seem to hold the best chance of moving safety forward. But the animus built into Solis’ tough speech is a distinct barrier to progress.
James Sharpe holds a master’s degree in environmental health sciences and is certified in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene, health and safety. He can be reached at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..