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cfm/product/OCA Compliance Report Digging Deeper to Safeguard Workers Experts Say Mine Safety Is Not a Contradiction in Terms In the early 1900s, more than 3,000 people lost their lives annually in mine accidents in the United States. In 2009, that figure was a record low 34 and it is creeping toward 60 for 2010. Despite this year¶s high numbers the pattern indicates a significant downward trend. But dramatic incidents in recent weeks underscore the risk. In Nevada, two gold miners lost their lives at Barrick Goldstrike¶s Meikle Mine in early August. About 10 days later, Chilean rescuers made contact with 33 trapped coal miners and continue working to bore a shaft that will permit them to bring the men to the surface. Mine safety advocates point out that despite the industry¶s reputation as highly hazardous, a number of other occupational groups²like roofers, construction laborers, and farmers² typically experience higher numbers of fatalities. However, critics say the industry is not doing enough to protect employees. For many Americans who have little or no connection to the industry, mining represents a mysterious black hole. For others, it is a way of life and a near-automatic choice of employment. This Compliance Report provides an overview of mine safety initiatives and best practices, including many applicable to nonmining employers. It reflects several points of view, including those of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA, OSHA¶s sister agency within the Department of Labor), two mine operations recognized for strong safety performance, and the United Mine Workers of America. SITUATIONAL ANALYSIS This article was scheduled months ago with interviewees selected from annual MSHA awards for safe hours worked. One of the winners for 2008(the most recent year announced) was Massey Energy, which owns 85 mines, including three cited for safe performance. Massey is also the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine, the site of the multifatality explosion in April in West Virginia. Despite ongoing inquiries and legal and regulatory fallout linked to the disaster, we honored our prior decision to interview Massey officials about practices that led to the award. We have followed the same approach with employers in manufacturing and construction who have, in other instances, been involved in accidents and enforcement actions. According to MSHA, mine safety improved significantly after 1978, when the agency began operating under the new Mine Safety and Health Act. MSHA explains that its ³culture of prevention embeds safety and health as core values in all initiatives and ongoing activities.´ The agency points to a number of factors in that progress. These include inspectors who direct their efforts where risk is greatest, strong enforcement supplemented by efforts to help miners understand and follow the law, technical support, and education and training.
LEGISLATIVE UPDATE The Upper Big Branch tragedy has spurred legislative action. The Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 (known as the Miner Act) is on its way to a full vote in the House after passing the Committee on Education and Labor last month. Provisions of the legislation, which was favored by Democratic committee members over Republicans, are the following: New rules for mines with serious and repeat violations. Criteria for pattern of violations sanctions would be revamped for underground coal mines and other gassy mines to ensure that operators that repeatedly violate standards or have high accidents rates improve safety. y Accountability for irresponsible operators. The legislation would increase maximum criminal penalties for underground coal mines and would establish a sanction for operators who knowingly tamper with or disable safety equipment that could kill miners. Better enforcement tools. MSHA would gain authority to subpoena documents and testimony and could seek a court order to close a mine when there is a continuing threat to miners. The agency would also be required to require contractors, as well as operators, to report accidents and injuries. Better whistleblower protection. Protections for workers who speak out about unsafe conditions would be strengthened and would guarantee that miners not lose pay for safety-related mine closures. Enhanced requirements. Among these are increased rock dusting to prevent coal dust explosions and a requirement that preshift reviews of hazards and violations in the mine be communicated to incoming miners. (Dusting underground areas with powdered limestone dilutes the coal dust in the mine atmosphere, reducing explosion hazards.) Protocols for continuous atmospheric monitoring for methane and carbon monoxide would be developed by NIOSH and adopted by MSHA. MSHA review. The legislation calls for an independent investigation of the most serious accidents, including an assessment of any gaps in MSHA oversight or regulation. Basic protections guarantee. Whistleblower protections would be strengthened, criminal and civil penalties increased, and hazard abatement sped up. Also, accident victims and families would have greater rights during investigations and enforcement actions. OSHA would be allowed to assert concurrent enforcement jurisdiction in states with state plans if the state is not maintaining protections at least as effective as those of federal OSHA. The legislation goes a long way toward desired protections but not far enough, according to Bill Banig, director of government affairs for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). ³The bill that came out of the Education and Labor committee definitely makes a number of improvements and we totally support it.´ Banig points specifically to anticipated changes in the pattern of violations status, whistleblower protections, and strengthening of enforcement. But the union, which also represents employees in health care, trucking, manufacturing, and the public sector, is not as satisfied about other provisions in the Miner bill. According to Banig, the proposal does not give miners¶ representatives the right to full participation in investigations and other regulatory matters. He adds, ³Ultimately, we feel the best protection for any worker is to have a union representing them.´ While UMWA has been highly critical of Massey Energy and other sectors of the industry, Banig says the union feels that most mine operators ³are doing a very good job. Just a small percentage of operators continue to have these disasters.´ He sees the problem as an overemphasis on production and a failure to realize ³that having a safe mine is also a very productive mine.´ While the union will always have differences with MSHA, Banig believes the current leadership is doing a very good job.
SENTINELS OF SAFETY The first Sentinels of Safety award was announced by former President Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer, when he was Secretary of Commerce in 1925. The annual safety competition has continued uninterrupted to the present day and is currently cosponsored by MSHA and the National Mining Association. The 2009 winners will be named this fall. The awards go to mine operations with a minimum of 4,000 injury-free hours and are awarded in 10 categories. In 2008, Massey Energy was the only company to receive three awards. We talked with Stan Suboleski, a former executive, current member of the Massey board of directors, and consultant to the company. From 2003 to 2006 Suboleski served as a commissioner of the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. ³I think mining gets a bad rap. It obviously has a lot of inherent dangers that, if you were free to engineer your own workplace, you would not design into it. These include confined spaces, the presence of gas, and a roof, floor, and walls with undefined engineering properties.´ Another hazard, and a significant difference from manufacturing environments, is that from day to day, equipment is in a different place and the mine itself changes shape.´ Despite such conditions, Suboleski says a review of the statistics reveals that accident rates in mining are typical of those in manufacturing and considerably better than rates in health care and other sectors. Underground vehicle traffic is one of the biggest causes of accidents. Speaking of the effort to reduce risk, he says, ³I think we¶ve gotten a whole lot better, although I never thought we¶d see the type of accident we saw at Upper Big Branch. We still have a long way to go.´ Drilling down into specifics, Suboleski points to roof support enhancements. ³What we do to support mine roofs these days is to try to turn the rock into a replica of reinforced concrete as nearly as we can.´ That involves drilling holes in a 4-foot pattern, then inserting a quick-drying, epoxy-type resin and inset bolts to literally bind the roof. ³Also, we¶ve gotten pretty good at designing out high stresses,´ says Suboleski. He credits a NIOSH roof control group that studied pillar design and roof failures and used their conclusions to design more-scientific roof control guidelines. Internal Best Practices Beyond industry innovations, Suboleski says Massey¶s safety development group has taken the lead on a number of high-value safety improvements. The team reviews every lost time accident with the goal of engineering out similar hazards. ³For example, we noticed that we were having one or two people a year hit by pieces of falling rock as they were traveling in or out of the mine,´ reports Suboleski. The safety group recommended, and the company implemented, a requirement that all rail vehicles (rail is the primary method of transporting people and materials) must be outfitted with canopies. Another hazard the company is working to eliminate involves strains and sprains, especially of backs and fingers. The answer in this case was a 48-inch underground forklift, which is now in use at every Massey mine. Suppliers palletize supplies to fit mine openings; using these ³short´ forklifts helps prevent back strains and finger injuries involved with moving materials.
The noisiness of underground mines and coal processing plants is a longstanding problem. Massey employees are required to use hearing protection outfitted with built-in radios. The devices serve to enhance communication while guarding against high noise levels. ³We¶ve done simple things, too, like requiring all workers to wear reflective clothing.´ Suboleski says this was not common in the early 1990s when Massey began to require it, but has since become fairly standard. Employees wear yellow and orange reflecting clothing and visitors wear green to ensure that care is taken around them. Massey also requires protective gloves, footwear, and mandatory eye protection that go beyond MSHA requirements. Suboleski is among those anticipating introduction of proximity detectors to help avoid the risk of individuals being run over by ³continuous miners.´ These are the huge, largely remotely controlled trucks that literally rip coal off the mine walls. MSHA, NIOSH, and mine operators have been working to perfect detectors to eliminate accidents that result when operators cannot detect the presence of individuals in the path of the equipment. In February, MSHA issued a request for information on the benefits of using these devices. Massey is moving ahead with plans to install detection systems in all its mines. ³We Still Don¶t Know«´ ³We recognize that we still don¶t know what caused this accident.´ Referring to the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, Massey Energy board member and former executive Stan Suboleski says the company is now working on ³a pretty good theory´ about what caused the incident that took the lives of 29 miners in April. According to Suboleski, mine officials believe a large crack in the floor of the mine and a resulting gas inundation may have caused the incident. MSHA has publicly stated that its specialists do not concur. Suboleski explains that sensors that continuously monitor and report on conditions inside the mine revealed a very sudden change in atmosphere at the time of the explosion. ³You had one reading that showed zero carbon monoxide and methane, then 3 minutes later both of those are µpegged out,¶ so you know that whatever happened happened very suddenly,´ he says. The leaking substance found an ignition source before the presence of high concentrations could be indicated by the sensors. Normally, the sensors would have responded to the high levels by killing power to the affected section of the mine. Suboleski described the type of mining being done in the area as a specialized, high volume process known as ³long wall mining.´ A 2-mile-long block of coal is laid out and ³a giant cheese slicer is put over it, which runs back and forth continually.´ The resulting coal falls onto a conveyor and is transported out of the mine. After the explosion, MSHA required certain changes at another Massey site where the long wall process was being used. The company disagreed with the agency and responded by closing that mine. Suboleski says MSHA has since rescinded the requirements, permitting the mine to
be reopened. As the Upper Big Branch inquiry continues, Suboleski says the company is not ruling out any possible causes.
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