Renewing Our Commitment to Promote Safe Mines

by Joseph Main on April 8, 2013 · 4 comments

Editor’s note: This blog is based on an op-ed that appeared in the Beckley Register-Herald.

Every mining death that occurs leaves a lasting impact not only on the victim’s family, but on the community where that miner lived, worked and worshipped. Anniversaries of mine accidents often serve as a painful reminder of the tragic moment that took the life of a loved one and can resonate forever.

On April 5, 2010, at 3:02 p.m., the Montcoal community was forever changed.  Twenty-nine miners perished in a massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in the worst coal mining disaster in decades.

Upper Big Branch Mine Memorial

Upper Big Branch Mine memorial. Photo credit: www.facebook.com/facesofthemine

An exhaustive investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration followed. Hundreds of hours of witness testimony unearthed disturbing facts about the mine’s workplace culture, its value of production over safety, hidden hazards and a fear of retaliation for miners who spoke up about unsafe practices.

As a result of an ongoing, aggressive investigation by the Department of Justice, three former Massey Energy employees have been charged with federal crimes in the wake of the explosion. Two are in prison. The third awaits sentencing.

But that’s just a start. The culture of mine safety and health had to change, and MSHA had to be part of it.

We began taking action with enhanced enforcement programs, such as impact inspections at mines with compliance problems, and the first use of the revised Pattern of Violations process in the history of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.

In our first screening following those revisions in 2010, 17 mines received potential POV notices. By October 2012, during the third screening, that number had fallen to four. Recent reviews have found that mines that received a potential POV notice have shown signs of improved compliance and lower injury rates.

We reminded the mining industry of their obligations through policy alerts – miners’ safety rights, proper mine ventilation and not providing advance notice of MSHA inspections. We targeted specific rulemaking on spreading rock dust in mines to prevent explosions, requiring examinations by mine operators for better compliance, and overhauling the POV program to rein in chronic violators.

We implemented organizational and administrative changes, splitting the southern West Virginia coal district into two offices to better manage enforcement, and we upgraded the Mt. Hope dust laboratory to a national lab to better manage coal dust and gas analyses.

In partnership with the department’s solicitor of labor, we’ve resolved more than 100,000 cases of contested violations that had piled up before the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

And we have better education and outreach efforts underway, to encourage mine operators to undertake greater responsibility to find and fix hazardous conditions at their mines, improve industry response in the wake of mine emergencies, and give miners a greater voice in the workplace without the fear of retaliation. In 2012, MSHA filed the most temporary reinstatements than in any other year on behalf of miners who had been fired or otherwise retaliated against for reporting violations.

Most importantly, more miners are going home to their families safe and healthy. Fatality and injury rates in mining reached the lowest level ever in 2011, and preliminary data show that those rates fell even further in 2012.

Based on the results of our own internal review following the UBB tragedy, we’ve identified and implemented dozens of corrective actions.

The Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial stands today in Whitesville. And last Friday, on the 3-year anniversary of the explosion, a memorial marker honoring the 29 miners was placed on the Raleigh County Courthouse lawn. For our part at MSHA, the most compelling commemoration to these men is a renewed commitment to our mission to prevent death, disease and injury, and to promote safe and healthy workplaces for all miners.

Joseph Main is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bruce R. Kuzma April 9, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Mine Safety must be the most important, my grandfather, John C. Kuzma, Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal, died of Black Lung after working in the mines all of his life. If humans are going to be working underground in hazardous conditions then the company should be accountable to its employees.

2 Terry Keenan April 12, 2013 at 10:21 am

Dear Mr. Secratery;

As a veteran safety professional, I aplaud the efforts of MSHA to improve the implementation of safety into the mining community. Sad but true there were many “bad actors” out there that were more interested in production than the safety of their employees. It’s a good thing to challenge them to clean it up and do the right things for the protection of the guys who carry the load for their success.

I would suggest that your work is not nearly done however. I would hope that your agency and the personnel that we work with in the field would recognize that there are some very “Good Actors” out here as well. Many of us are trying very hard to train our employees to function as safely as they can, and we train and instruct our supervisors to enforce the rules for a multitude of reasons. Here is the problem as I see it.

Your inspectors are more concerned about writting a citation than they are about making sure that our crews are working safely within the guidlines of the rules. We are a contractor (actually building stuctures and facilities on mine property), but your inspectors tell us that they are not going to recognize the OSHA rules that apply to our type of work, and yet most of the rules in CFR 30 do not lend themselves very well to our activities.

Please consider up-dating your regulations to recognize that the other safety guidlines may be the better choice for the safety of the workers. Also. please inform your inspectors that they shouldn’t “make up the interpretaions” as they go. Read the rules, and apply them as they are written.

Thanks – Terry Keenan

3 Lloyd S Smith June 3, 2013 at 11:35 am

Joe,
Enjoyed your blog so much. My family lost two grandfathers to Black Lung way too soon, my son and nephews are 5th generation underground coal miners…we have had our own family tradgeties and your blog really drove it home to me.
I am a safety director at a small coal mine in southern indiana. We here do appriciate our District #8 inpectors very much. They are true proffessionals in every way and I’ve learned so much from them.When these guys leave my mine for the day my mine is safer and I have always learned something new. They arent just out here writing citations, they genuinly care about the coal miner.
We seem to be loosing the inspectors that we have benifited and learned so much from. In some cases are being replaced with some with much less experience which consernes me and others in this district. God Bless you and your inspectors.

4 Faran Gouldson July 22, 2014 at 11:00 pm

Hi Joseph,

Great article and I’m glad they are reviewing the Mines issue because its been a danger for a long time. I think stricter guidelines must be implemented in all countries not just the US.

Additionally here are some great links about the topic
http://www.msha.gov/safeinfo.htm

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