The Multinational Monitor


G U E S T    C O L U M N

Don't Undermine
Mine Safety

by J. Davitt McAteer

ALTHOUGH MANY AMERICANS CONSIDER coal mining a historical relic, U.S. miners are mining more coal now than ever before. Coal provides more than half of the nation's electric power, illuminates more homes and offices than any other power source and drives the assembly lines in Detroit and elsewhere. Almost all of the coal burned in the United States is mined domestically and U.S. exports are growing.

Besides coal, U.S. metal and nonmetal miners produce some 60 different commodities. These include everything from gold to stone and gravel for highways, bridges and structures. Miners also provide fertilizer for crops and sand for cement and fiber-optic cables. They supply raw materials for a vast array of industrial and chemical products. The U.S. mining industry adds $56 billion a year to the gross national product and employs approximately 400,000 miners.

These miners are more productive than ever before. As an old American folk song notes, an underground coal miner once shoveled "sixteen tons" a day. In 1993, underground "longwall" coal miners in the Western United States produced an average of 5.7 tons of coal per worker-hour. Despite these changes, the traditional causes of mining tragedies -- collapsing roofs, explosions, fires, electrical and machinery accidents, lung diseases -- have not disappeared. In the best mines, however, they have been held at bay with increasingly sophisticated technology, training and safety management.

Nationwide safety net

The roots of these improvements can be traced to watershed legislation passed 25 years ago: the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. The law was prompted by the Farmington mine explosion of 1968, which left 78 miners dead, some of whom still remain entombed in that West Virginia mine. Miners who do not lose their lives in disastrous accidents may still face other deadly risks such as "black lung" disease. Breathing coal mine dust has left thousands of coal miners disabled, unable to work and struggling for breath. The 1969 law provided for mandatory coal mine inspections and granted coal miners new safety protections and rights.

In 1977, after a silver mine fire claimed 92 victims near Kellogg, Idaho, Congress extended the coal law's provisions to the entire mining industry, strengthening many of the law's provisions in the process. The expanded mining safety law established mandatory federal inspections of all mines, provided a variety of enforcement tools tailored to differing mining circumstances and granted miners safety and health rights.

There is ample evidence that these laws work. In 1969, the year that the initial law took effect, there were 260 coal mining deaths. By 1994, that figure had dropped to 44. Similarly, in 1977, when Congress extended the safety and health law from coal mines to the metal and nonmetal mining industry, fatalities in this sector numbered 133. Last year the metal and nonmetal mining industry had 40 deaths, a historic low.

The greatest safety progress has been made in underground coal mining, which historically has been the most dangerous sector. Underground mines once accounted for the majority of coal mining deaths. In recent years, however, coal mine deaths have been fairly equally divided between surface and underground accidents. In the first eight months of this year, there were fewer deaths in underground coal mines than there were in surface coal facilities. Also, there were only two deaths in underground metal and nonmetal mines in the first eight months of this year. These statistics provide compelling evidence of the effectiveness of the law, which is focused on accident prevention.

Despite this dramatic improvement, too many preventable deaths still occur in the mining industry. Thousands of miners are hurt each year in accidents or suffer job-related illnesses that result in lost work time, medical expenses, suffering and, in some cases, such permanent disabilities as lung disease or amputation.

Unfortunately, not all mine operators and managers are committed to safety. In recent years, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigations have resulted in dozens of mining companies and individuals either being found guilty of or pleading guilty to criminal violations of federal safety and health laws. These are not mere technical violations. Under federal mine safety law, criminal violations must involve willful conduct; these perpetrators knew that they were violating the law.

Recently, Southmountain Coal Company and several Southmountain officials admitted to criminal violations that resulted in an explosion that killed eight Virginia miners in 1992. During recent years, 146 companies and individuals have pleaded guilty to criminal violations of coal mine dust sampling requirements that are designed to help prevent black lung disease.

New challenges

There are no mines inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway. Not surprisingly, much of the work being done to advance mine safety and health occurs in the field, where miners, mine operators, equipment manufacturers, mining schools and state agencies have worked with MSHA to make miners healthier and mines safer. During my tenure at MSHA, I have emphasized the need for miners, mine operators, regulators and others to solve safety problems together. We have been doing so by focusing on several mining hazards, including those posed by underground explosions, accidents involving roof bolting machines and haulage vehicles, as well as the special safety problems faced by small mines and independent contractors.

Mine explosions still are the most feared underground mining accident. Just last year, a fatal coal mine explosion claimed two lives at the Day Branch No. 9 Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. That explosion was a classic case of a preventable accident that was caused by multiple failures to adhere to safety standards. Since I joined MSHA, we've used every medium to attack this danger, from specially targeted inspections to public service announcements. MSHA is now preparing to launch an expanded education and media campaign to remind mine operators and miners of elevated explosion risks in the winter due to drier air and low-pressure storm fronts that can push methane from worked-out areas into areas where miners are working.

The special safety risks of small underground coal mines are another area of particular concern. Mines employing fewer than 50 people are responsible for a disproportionate share of fatal accidents. The operators of small mines often lack such resources as full-time safety directors, which larger companies can afford. To address the safety problems of small mines, MSHA held a Small Mine Summit at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, West Virginia in April 1994. At the meeting, operators of small mines requested that we develop and provide special safety materials for small mine operators and by appointing a small mine coordinator at MSHA. We did.

Another target area is to shore up the safety of roof bolter operators (see cover photo). Miners use roof bolting machines to support the structural integrity of mines, driving a steel bolt that is several feet long into mine roofs. In my first few months at MSHA, operators of roof bolting machines suffered a rash of fatal accidents. In many of these "pinch-point" accidents, the victims were crushed between two parts of the machine or between the machine and the coal roof. Many of these accidents were attributed to "human error."

MSHA asked mine operators, miners and machine manufacturers to identify root causes that might be common to a number of these cases. Our study showed that machine design flaws and inconsistencies between different machines increased the likelihood that a fatal accident would occur. This finding led to practical recommendations for retrofitting existing machines and redesigning new models. We issued new recommendations on roof bolter safety in August 1995.

Surface accidents involving haulage equipment are another critical area. With underground fatalities on the decline, surface mine accidents involving trucks and loaders have emerged as a leading cause of mine deaths. Accidents involving all manner of vehicles on mine properties, from huge trucks to personal vehicles, have failed to follow the decline of other types of mine accidents. In a recent five-year period, 100 mine deaths were attributed to surface accidents involving haulage equipment.

MSHA responded by issuing a safety advisory to mine operators and miners and making spot safety checks to determine the most frequent haulage safety problems. We also produced a series of training videos on how to safely operate and maintain surface haulage equipment. Each of our district offices around the country held haulage safety seminars, which were well attended. Despite these efforts, surface haulage accidents continue at an unacceptable rate. Efforts to address this problem will continue until the problem is controlled.

Contracting safety

Finally, the growing use of independent contractors and temporary mining workers poses new safety risks and challenges. While most miners are employed directly by the operator of a given mine, an increasing number of the workers on mine sites are employees of independent contractors. Independent contractors are brought in to perform a range of tasks, including shaft sinking, construction, electrical work and blasting. As of last year, the number of contractor employees working at mine sites exceeded 61,000. Remarkably, 16 percent of all miners now work for independent contractors.

Whenever independent contractors' employees are on mine property, they are covered by the same rights and protections as other miners. But given the work's intermittent nature and because they are not employees of the mine operator, these workers rarely receive the same level of safety training as other mine workers. As a group, independent contractors' employees have a markedly higher rate of fatal injuries than the direct employees of mine operators.

Another type of contractor has become common at small mines, especially in the coal industry: contract production operators. These companies or individuals are often registered with MSHA as the mine operator and their employees are defined as operator employees as far as injury reporting is concerned.

Typically, however, these contract production operators mine their coal under legal contract to another, larger company, which may exercise considerable control over the mining operation. This larger entity may own the coal in the ground, or lease the coal from the owner of the mineral rights. It may purchase the mined coal or it may supply resources to the contract production operator, including technical help in planning and managing the operation. The challenge for MSHA is to find a way to improve the safety and health of contract miners, despite the fact that the various players involved all have varying and often unclear levels of responsibility for the well being of contract workers.

A prototype solution may have been worked out in a recent agreement between MSHA and United Coal Company of Grundy, Virginia. United's contractors operate 24 small coal mines in Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

In an effort to encourage United to require its production contractors to practice vigilant safety management, MSHA could have taken an adversarial route, seeking to hold United, as a mine operator, responsible for safety and health violations committed by its production contractors. But the result most likely would have been years of litigation.

While issuing citations to such an operator may be necessary at times, it can also be counterproductive. What we want to accomplish where contractors are concerned is to mobilize all the resources that are available to improve safety management and prevent accidents. After a series of meetings, MSHA and United developed a partnership to improve conditions at the mines. Our agreement, signed this May, was designed to encourage United's independent production contractors to create and maintain the kind of safety culture at their mines that can save lives.

Under this agreement, United is providing its production contractors with comprehensive training, which is required at both the state and federal levels. United is helping its production contractors to help draw up the required mine plans that cover such crucial issues as ventilation and roof control. United also has committed to work only with production contractors who have a responsible compliance record. United's training department is conducting quarterly audits of contractors to assess their records with respect to safety, regulatory compliance and civil penalties. MSHA helps United by providing information that the company needs to assess the contractors. As long as United follows through on its safety and health commitments, MSHA has agreed not to designate United as a mine operator, a designation that would make it responsible for any violations and citations.

This agreement allows MSHA to spread its resources further to promote safety and health. In addition to MSHA's inspections, these mines now benefit from United's scrutiny. Moreover, legal incentives now are bolstered by the incentives of the production contract, resulting in a safer workplace for miners.

Unfortunately, there also is still much work to be done to improve the health of miners. While coal mine dust control has improved, and the incidence of lung disease is down, federal "black lung" benefits to miners disabled by this condition, and to their families, still cost more than $1 billion annually.

As with mine safety, underground mines have been the focus of most miner health efforts. Recently, however, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health diagnosed several cases of silicosis among surface coal miners in Pennsylvania, with this irreversible and sometimes fatal lung disease posing a whole new area of miner health concerns. Since the discovery of these silicosis cases, MSHA has briefed the mining industry on this risk and inspected surface coal operations nationwide to make sure the existing standards were being met. In a one-week special inspection effort, agency inspectors checked approximately 1,000 surface coal mine drills and required that the 142 violations they identified by corrected promptly.

Congressional threat

Despite this track record of accomplishments and despite all that still needs to be done, a bill is being discussed on Capitol Hill that would repeal the current mine safety law and abolish MSHA. As proposed, H.R. 1834 would amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and repeal the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. The bill would:

The Clinton administration opposes the bill and, in recent hearings, both miners and mine operator organizations have expressed strong reservations about turning back the clock on miner safety.

Apart from these legislative issues, another factor is that the federal budget must be controlled and many federal agencies must adapt to budget constraints. While it will be a challenge, MSHA can achieve some economies as necessary, while maintaining and improving our services to miners.

A recent study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) rated the mine safety program in the United States as second in the world -- only surpassed by Australia. MSHA has provided technical assistance to several formerly Communist nations -- including Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Poland -- that aspire to improve their mining safety records. We have also helped hammer out a new ILO agreement on mine safety and health.

These international activities are important because mining is an integral part of the global economy. Multinational firms control mines worldwide and international price competition is driving deep cost-cutting in many mineral industries. Extension of the international marketplace must not come at the expense of the health and lives of miners, either in the United States or in developing nations.

Mine safety is by no means an idea whose time is past. In the Federal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, Congress made a commitment to what it called the mining industry's "most precious resource -- the American miner." Standing by that commitment, we can continue to improve mining health and safety and extend a safety record of which the U.S. mining industry is justifiably proud.

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