In recent testimony at the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions hearing on mine safety and health, American Society of Safety Engineers’ (ASSE) member and Mining Practice Specialty Administrator Mike Neason, a certified Mine Safety Professional, urged the Committee to not assume that a lack of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) enforcement powers or weak penalties to be the root cause of the failures witnessed during the recent mine tragedies.
For TFM‘s coverage of general safety issues, see “A Recipe For Safety” from the archives.
“Along with an examination of penalties and more stringent requirements, the Committee must consider other factors. It could be that the most effective solution to increasing mine safety is that MSHA make better, smarter use of its current powers and target enforcement resources more directly at the proven ‘bad actors’ rather than being required to inspect all mines in exactly the same way, regardless of their compliance history or safety and health performance,” Neason said. “It may be appropriate to provide the agency with more flexibility so it can deploy its inspectors where they are most needed. More effective and not merely more severe enforcement may very well be the answer we all seek. We urge the Committee to work with MSHA, the National Institue of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and stakeholders, both within industry and organizations like ASSE to help make these determinations.”
Neason noted that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to underground mine communication, respiratory protection, or mine rescue, “as much as we all would hope for.” With respect to mine safety technology, the Sago disaster pointed out that gaps exist in protections for underground miners – both coal and metal/non-metal. Although many mines, Neason noted, such as the ones that he oversees, go beyond compliance with MSHA’s mandatory standards, others unfortunately adhere to the bare minimum standards, with the result that lives may be lost due to inadequate respiratory protection and technologically obsolete communication systems.
The market makes readily available products that function in the same manner as the one-hour Self-Contained Self-Rescuers (SCSRs) but provide expanded protection from toxic gases that can be created in mine fires or present in gassy mines even without an accident, Neason said. Promising technologies also exist for locating or communicating with miners underground, such as the text messaging technology currently being tested in approximately 140 mines throughout the world.
However, when considering what is and may not be feasible, focus must be placed on post-incident functionality when electrical systems may not be working. We urge both NIOSH and MSHA to investigate this issue and to explore the technologies developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, and the fire service industries following 9/11/01 for firefighters to communicate in emergencies.
Neason noted that Congress must be aware that, in the metal/non-metal sector, approximately 98% of underground mines are classified as “small business entities” under U.S. Small Business Administration criteria. Many coal mines are small business enterprises with as few as five employees. ASSE hopes the Committee will recognize this and look for creative solutions, such as establishing new tax incentives, giving operators some credit against citation penalties to encourage them to adopt new technology quickly, or establishing small business loans for the purchase of mine rescue, communications and personal protective equipment.
ASSE is also concerned with a provision that calls for a $100,000 minimum fine for failure to notify MSHA of an accident within 15 minutes, a time that seems unachievable, especially in small mines with few workers. ASSE urges the Committee to work with MSHA, NIOSH and stakeholders to reexamine this provision in order to determine a more meaningful way to ensure emergency response.
With regard to mine rescue teams, many small mines have too few workers to field a team, Neason said. The legislation would direct all coalmines to have rescue teams consisting of their own employees. If this is to be achieved, the consequences of either closed mines or a market for coal that bears this cost must be understood. “This is why MSHA has for many years permitted mines to join together to form area rescue teams of highly trained personnel. This practice has worked effectively and can remain as an effective option,” Neason said.
Neason noted that while the loss of life in the Sago disaster was unacceptable to mine safety and health professionals dedicated to doing everything they can to make mines safe and healthy places to work, it is far from indicative of the overall state of mine safety and health in the U.S.
“To the contrary, mine safety has drastically improved over recent decades, and last year marked the lowest number of fatalities in U.S. history, capping a general trend of declining fatalities, injuries and illnesses,” Neason said.
Neason is a fifth generation miner and a Certified Mine Safety Professional who manages safety and health for the mining operations of Hanson Aggregates in Kentucky and surrounding states – both surface and underground mining. He noted that ASSE shares the committee’s concern with the state of mine safety and health today and has established a task force to review mining emergency preparedness and communications. Through ASSE’s alliance with MSHA and its partnership with NIOSH, it intends to help encourage an effective, proactive federal response to the concern many share over this nation’s commitment to mine safety and health.