Remarks of Dave Lauriski
Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Mine Safety and Health
before the National Mining Association's Mining Lawyers Conference
Saturday, October 20, 2001 Key West, Florida
Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here with you.
I'd like to thank Mike Duffy, deputy general counsel for the National Mining Association for this opportunity to speak with you this morning about mine safety and health.
Now that I've been at MSHA for a few months, I've had the pleasure of meeting with a number of you as well as with a number of your clients in the course of business. I pledged at the beginning of my tenure that MSHA would be in closer touch with its stakeholders. . Accordingly, I've personally been visiting mining regions through out the country. I've been to mines and MSHA offices from Montana to Alabama. I've met with mine operators, labor representatives, miners and many others, including MSHA's own employees to see for myself and hear about their concerns and ideas first hand.
Probably everyone who traveled here for this meeting had some thoughts of September 11. You might be wondering if the terrible events of that day, and since, have affected us at MSHA and in the Department of Labor.
I want to assure you that we are all moving ahead with our business.
Safety and health in the workplace continues to be our most important priority. This was true before September 11 and it remains the case today. We in MSHA are continuing to do our job and pursue our goal of reducing mine accidents and illnesses.
September 11 did delay one event, the annual Sentinels of Safety awards ceremony. As you may know, that's a joint award program between the National Mining Association and MSHA honoring the mining operations with the greatest number of injury-free hours. I am happy to say that it has since been rescheduled for November 6th.
Meanwhile, MSHA's mine emergency response team stood ready to assist if needed in New York and at the Pentagon. A number of mine operators also volunteered their rescue teams. These offers stood as a tribute to the selfless patriotism that we all know in the mining community.
In terms of MSHA's regular daily business, our people have never missed a beat. The National Mine Rescue and first Aid Contest came off in Louisville on schedule the week of September 16, showcasing the emergency response preparedness of the coal industry.
We continued our regular inspections, investigations, technical assistance, educational programs, and rulemaking activities, and we have continued our outreach efforts. Our district offices have held a well-attended series of stakeholder meetings throughout the mining regions. Our technical support division is also holding stakeholder meetings, targeting the manufacturing sector in order that we may hear their ideas as well.
The input from these meetings is being reported to me so that we as an agency can be responsive to our stakeholders' concerns and suggestions in order to set our course for the future.
Not long after my appointment, I suggested that a key to further progress in mine safety and health was to set goals. I suggested that all in the mining community work together to reduce fatal occurrences by 15 percent per year for the next four years, and to achieve a 50 percent reduction in the rate of nonfatal lost-day injuries over the next four years. I've talked with a great many people in the mining community about that goal, including many of you. Everyone has agreed and committed to work toward those objectives.
So, how are we doing on safety progress?
As of this date, the metal and nonmetal mining industry has experienced 24 fatalities. That compares with 39 at this time last year, and is the lowest figure as of this date in at least the past five years. That is and should be a matter of pride -- but not complacency.
As of September 22, the figures for the coal industry also were favorable compared with last year. However, as you know, we suffered a serious setback on September 23. Two explosions at the Jim Walter No. 5 mine in Alabama killed 13 miners.
It was a tragic accident, most of all because 12 of those who died were responding to help a co-worker injured in the first explosion, when the second explosion struck. Coming as it did only a short time after September 11, this tragedy was even more wrenching if that is possible.
MSHA officials responded immediately. We worked closely with company, union, and State officials.
Regretfully, during the rescue attempts, only one missing miner could be recovered, who later died in the hospital. The mine rescue teams were forced back by high levels of methane. They also had found fire. This, of course, caused their withdrawal from the mine.
Because of that, the bodies of 12 miners remain underground. The explosion area has been sealed off by water that was pumped in to form a seal that would exclude oxygen. As of now, mine rescue teams are methodically working to make the rest of the mine safe and build seals so that the water can be pumped out and teams can go back into the explosion area.
It's proceeding very carefully because the safety of the rescue teams is critical. We're continuing to work very closely with the company, union, and the State to assure that safety.
I have been to Alabama twice to learn more, to talk to the people involved, and to update the public on what is happening. In addition, on September 27, a memorial service was held in the high school stadium at Brookwood, Alabama, for the miners who lost their lives. Along with many others, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao spoke to a crowd of some 3,000 who had turned out to stand with the families and co-workers of these miners.
"In the deepest darkness of these tragedies," Secretary Chao said, "We have also seen the best that America has to offer." And she went on to say that it's important for us to identify what must be done to protect miners' lives in the future.
MSHA's investigation into what happened already is getting under way. It's being headed by MSHA district 5 manager Ray McKinney. Ray and his team will work to find out the fact so that accidents similar to this one can be prevented. Finding facts rather than focusing on blame will lead us to the root cause of this accident.
Beyond this terrible accident, we need to find ways of reducing all accidents.
Even before this explosion occurred, I was becoming concerned about an upturn in fatal accidents. Though mine fatalities generally were running below last year's figure, there were four coal mine fatalities during one 10-day period in August.
In September, two fatalities and a very serious injury occurred within one week in metal and nonmetal mining.
That's why we recently started asking mine operators to have their employees take a brief time-out, or "stand down for safety." We want to reach every miner on every shift in our nation's mines. We've come too far in mine safety to let this turn into a trend.
We'll soon be mailing out packets of safety information for discussion at mines as well as posting information on MSHA's web site. We're asking operators to take a hard look at safety practices'to talk to their employees about the hazards they face each day on the job. We're asking them to review any safety procedures they have in place and be sure those procedures are updated and well-understood by their employees.
If we persevere and pursue MSHA's suggested goals over the next four years, we would reduce the number of fatalities by 45 and have an average lost-day injury rate of 1.72. This is still a worthy goal, and no setback should sway our determination.
On the health side, we have goals as well. We are working
to reduce the percentage of respirable dust samples in coal mines exceeding the applicable standards; reduce the percentage of silica samples in metal and nonmetal mines exceeding the applicable standards; and reduce the percentage of noise exposures above the action level that would trigger a citation.
Currently, we're working with the mining community on several key health issues. Some of these concern regulations while others do not.
I've said that we will evaluate any new regulation stringently to ensure that it is necessary and that it would make a real difference in advancing miner health and safety.
And in the case of new proposed regulations, we will also solicit and take into consideration input we receive from all sectors of the mining community in order to achieve the most viable regulations possible.
For instance, MSHA's proposed Hazard Communication, or HazCom, regulations.
After this was published as an interim final rule, we had a concern that there hadn't been a sufficient opportunity for the public to have input.
The HazCom interim final rule, originally slated to go into effect earlier this month has been delayed so we could solicit additional and adequate input.
We re-opened the record and held additional public hearings in seven different cities making sure that all stakeholders would have another opportunity to comment on any issue relevant to the rulemaking.
We are now reviewing the comments we have received before determining whether we need to make any changes in the rule.
The extra time also will help to assure that mine operators have sufficient time to determine what is necessary for compliance and for MSHA to provide compliance assistance visits.
Another example is the new diesel particulate regulations for metal and nonmetal mines.
After industry challenged these rules, we were able to open discussions that ultimately reduced the areas of disagreement. Together with industry and the United Steelworkers of America, we worked together in a cooperative spirit and got an agreement on some key provisions that could go into effect and start addressing health concerns immediately.
We also were able to agree on doing joint sampling that should answer the questions that many people have about the reliability of the sampling device and the real levels of exposures underground, prior to the effective date of certain provisions of the new diesel standard.
This joint study is designed to validate MSHA's sampling process for diesel particulate matter and to allow us to determine the impact of potential interferences or distortions in the sampling..
The sampling began last month and is expected to be completed late this year or early next year.
This past summer, MSHA also conducted a series of one-day workshops to assist metal and nonmetal underground mine operators in complying with the final rule on diesel particulate matter.
These seminars were part of MSHA's concerted effort to use all of the tools available under the Mine Act to enhance miners' health and safety. Providing the mining community with knowledge of a rule at the beginning of the process is critical to one's ability to understand and comply with the rule.
These examples, I believe, illustrate that, while there will always be disputes, when we work together we can resolve a great many of them. One thing that's critical is to have an agreed-upon common factual basis upon which to make these decisions. .By conducting the diesel study, and by reopening the record on HazCom, we have more facts available and are in a better position to deal with stakeholders' concerns and make the most reasoned decisions for the health and safety of the miner.
Another thing that's critical is to have a basis of mutual respect, and an expectation that we can share information and work together successfully, in a cooperative manner, to improve safety and health -- all of us in the mining community including mine operators, miners, states, organizations, MSHA, and yes, the attorneys too, have a role to play in protecting miners' health and safety. I think we've made good progress in that regard..And here's where I ask for your help as well. You are positioned to help get the message across to your clients that when we ask to hear their ideas, we are indeed asking in all good faith. We really will listen. We may not always be able to do what all parties would like, but we sincerely wish to know their ideas and would appreciate their assistance in determining the best ways to promote miner safety and health. The message you send your clients is key, and I hope we can count on your help. .I have pledged to move MSHA towards being an agency that is more than an enforcement agency -- an agency that provides a balance between enforcement, education and trainingwhich includes compliance assistanceand technical support.
Let me be clearit does not mean less enforcement. We will change the way we function but that change will be done within the confines of the Mine Act.
I took an oath of office to uphold the law. And I will do that.
At the same time, I consider there is much more to our mission. We must promote, and there must be a commitment from all, to make safety a "value."
Safety is more than just the length of time that has elapsed since the last accident. It is more than a number and it is more than just a word. It is a valuea personal value..All of us in this industry need to remain vigilant, alert and steadfast in our efforts to think and promote safe work practices and safe production each and every day. It's a 24-hour-a-day job. Only by making safety a value in our daily life can we hope to make further progress in miner safety and health.
We need to remember that we can never get to a point, where safety is concerned, that we believe that certain hazards no longer exist or that we've somehow solved the problem of safety in the mines. .The tragedy in Alabama was a wake-up call for anyone who might forget that.
Improving our performance cannot be done by one group. It will take a partnership between all in the mining communitylabor, management, MSHA, the states, and organizations like yours the whole American mining community--working together with only one agenda....that being the enhancement of the health and safety in our mines and of our miners..By the advice and services you provide your clients, you can play a key role in making this industry a safe and healthful place to work.
Beyond only being litigators, you can help your clients find the best possible solutions for disputes and problems solutions that will help to prevent injuries and illnesses. You can encourage them to look at their choices in dealing with conflicts and disagreements and to consider partnerships and other cooperative solutions where possible.
If we all work together in this light, we can surely achieve the most ambitious of safety and health goals. We can save lives, prevent painful injuries and illnesses, and prevent losses that affect both families and companies.
That should be our focus and our goal. And we should not allow any setback to shake our determination. We can do it, and I believe that with your help, we will.
It's been a pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you for your time, and God Bless America.