Skip to content

Remarks of Dave Lauriski, Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Mine Safety and Health
before the Kansas Aggregate Producers' Association's
Annual Safety Awards Luncheon
Friday, January 18, 2002 Wichita, Kansas

Good afternoon. It's a pleasure to be here with you today. I'd like to thank the president of the Kansas Aggregate Producers' Association, Steve Heft, for the invitation to speak with you today.

I'd like to extend a special note of congratulations to all award recipients here today. Your obvious concern for safe work and safe production is greatly appreciated and the awards you receive are truly deserved.

You set the standard for workers and mine operators in the U.S. mining industry. And groups like yours lead the way toward a safer and more healthful mining industry for us all.

To all of you - I say, thank you for working safe, and keep it up.

Your safety achievements have contributed to an overall record-setting year in the U.S. mining industry.

Fatal injuries at all mines in the United States declined to a new record-low total of 72 last year. That was 13 fewer than in calendar year 2000, and the lowest figure since records have been kept, starting in the early 20th century.

Nationally, the metal and nonmetal mining sector set an historic record low with 30 fatalities last year, down from 47 in 2000. The previous lowest metal and nonmetal fatality total had been 40, recorded back in 1994.

Here in Kansas, you've experienced zero fatalities during the last two years. In addition, the non-fatal days-lost injury rate for this state dropped from 5.37 in 1996 to 3.04 in the year 2000 -- a 43 percent decrease over that time. Congratulations!

I've always felt that one key to further progress in any arena was to set goals. I am a firm believer that to achieve excellence there must be an identified, measurable target to work toward. With that in mind we have set some very specific targets for the whole U.S. mining industry.

Two of our goals over the next four years are to reduce the number of fatalities by 15 percent per year and to reduce our non-fatal days-lost injury rate by 50 percent over this same four-year period.

I talked with a great many people in the mining community about these goals and all have agreed that these are worthwhile and do-able objectives. And today I am asking for your agreement and commitment toward achieving these objectives.

Preliminary data indicate that the one of the goals I mentioned was met in the year 2001. The mining industry as a whole reduced fatalities by 15 percent. Looking at the metal and nonmetal mining industry, the progress was even greater -- fatalities were down by 36 percent.

The sand and gravel industry reduced fatalities from 12 down to 7, or 42 percent. The limestone industry, from 10 down to 5, or 50 percent. The cement industry, from 3 down to one, or 33 percent.

Here in Kansas, you maintained the lowest possible fatality toll of zero, and you have also shown that reducing the non-fatal days-lost injury rate by 50 percent over four years is an achievable goal.

Your safety progress here in Kansas is an accomplishment in which you should all take pride. This achievement shows what can be done when we are committed and when we work together. Congratulations!

At the same time, it must be noted that fatalities in the coal industry increased last year, from 38 in 2000 to 42 in 2001. Thirteen of those deaths came in one tragic coal mine accident in Brookwood, Alabama, at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine last September.

It was a heartbreaking situation-most of the victims were responding to help victims of the first explosion, when a second explosion struck. This tragic accident forcibly reminds us of the need for constant vigilance.

We are now conducting a thorough investigation there to determine the root cause of the accident and to find ways to prevent this type of tragedy in the future.

We in the Mine Safety and Health Administration recognize that excellence in safety and health demands close cooperation from everyone -- mining companies throughout the country, mine workers, trade associations, labor organizations, state agencies and educational institutions -- all individuals and groups that have a vested interest in mine safety and health.

Accordingly, at the beginning of my tenure, I pledged that MSHA would be in closer touch with its stakeholders.

We've been to mining operations across the country. We've stopped at MSHA's offices in almost every district. I've met with labor representatives, mine operators, miners and many others to ask for ideas for improving mine safety and health as well as to offer our assistance.

And earlier today I had the opportunity and privilege to meet with many of you.

We held literally dozens and dozens of meetings late last year across the country to reach out to our stakeholders and obtain input on how to improve safety and health for our nation's mines and miners.

Some were held to get input on miner training. Participants represented miners, mine operators, educators, labor unions, trade associations, equipment manufacturers, states and others.

And we also held meetings with representatives of the mining community to hear their concerns and obtain ideas for using information technology to improve safety and health for miners. We held informational meetings with industry and labor on a new "common platform," which would make a wide variety of mine safety and health data more easily accessible to MSHA and the mining community.

I hope that some of you were able to take part in one or more of these meetings. Over the holiday period we have been compiling and studying the input we received. In order to help us help you put the puzzle together.

MSHA is currently working to develop an action plan that will implement the many comments and suggestions received during the stakeholder meetings. We plan to share the results with you and others in the mining industry in the very near future.

However, at this point, I think I can give you a brief preview of some issues that emerged.

First of all, our stakeholder meetings showed that improvements are possible and change is required in the way MSHA goes about its business.

Secondly, from industry and labor, from trainers and manufacturers and others, we heard the same thing, and I agree: MSHA needs to view itself as more than an enforcement agency.

MSHA needs to be about compliance assistance, partnerships, education, training, and technical support as well as enforcement.

We need to look at what works - not just what isn't working.

We need to encourage good health and safety performance, and not just find poor performance.

We need to become pro-active -- not just re-active.

Let me be clear - that does not mean less enforcement. It means that we will bring a focus to our enforcement efforts and change the way we function, but any change will be done within the confines of the Mine Safety and Health Act. I took an oath to uphold the law. And I will do that.

At the same time, I believe there is much more to our mission.

Another aspect we heard about consistently was training.

In fact, training was probably the single issue that we heard most about from all segments of the mining community. It's clear that everyone agrees:

Effective training is an essential tool in our efforts to reduce accidents causing injury and illness. I hope that Part 46 was a significant tool in the marked reduction of fatalities in the aggregates community.

At the same time, we face the challenge of recruiting and training a new generation of mine workers.

If we are going to reduce mining accidents still further, we will have to ensure that our miners and supervisors know how to follow safe procedures in the workplace. We will have to better prepare them to perform their tasks safely.

We're reviewing what people in the mining community have told us about new miner training as well as experienced miner training, language barriers that exist, and Parts 46 and 48. We're looking closely as ways in which MSHA can help the mining industry create and maintain a superbly trained mining workforce.

And it is also imperative that MSHA's own health and safety specialists receive enhanced training -- training that will bring us in line with the workforce and workplaces of the 21st century.

Another common theme in our stakeholder meetings was compliance assistance.

A large number of people in our industry voiced a need for compliance assistance along with training. The majority of participants advocated a shift from what they see as an adversarial relationship. Many stakeholders said they would like MSHA to provide more advice on accident prevention measures and hazard recognition.

Yet another common theme was improving the inspection process. While somewhat different in their ideas, both industry and labor representatives suggested that we look at ways to make the most effective use of our health and safety specialists' time during an inspection.

In particular, representatives of the metal and nonmetal mining industry often expressed the need for more help for small mines in the areas of training and compliance assistance.

Other common themes concerned getting more and better use of the data we collect, and making the regulatory process more collaborative.

I have asked MSHA's top managers to take the comments of our stakeholders to heart. These comments harmonize with my view that MSHA can, and should, be more than merely an enforcement agency.

What I am talking about is an agency that brings a healthy balance among those activities the Mine Act mandates: enforcement, education and training - including compliance assistance - and technical support. We must always make safety and health our prime value by which we judge any action we decide to take.

Shortly, we will be rolling out our management plan that includes the many specific steps we will take in 2002 to bring the way we do business more closely in line with this philosophy and with what we have learned from our stakeholders.

Our plan envisions MSHA, industry, and labor working together in new kinds of partnerships to create positive health and safety results, with special attention given to small mines.

Of special interest to small mine operators, we are looking at a small mining business initiative to foster cooperation and consultation with small business owners to achieve a reduction in injuries and illnesses.

Our management plan will address training materials tailored to small mines. We plan to provide training programs for small mine operators directed specifically to their needs. Among other training efforts, we envision making greatly expanded training and informational resources available to small operators all over the country by using the Internet. At the same time, we will put special emphasis on compliance assistance and training visits for mines that do not have their own safety and training departments and perhaps cannot use web-based resources.

We plan to evaluate areas where instructors and training facilities can be moved closer to where small mines are located, and look at ways to make training programs more easily available in remote locations.

We look forward to working with you on these initiatives in the near future.

In addition, we are currently working with the mining community on several key health issues. Some of these concern regulations, while others concern education and training and technical support.

Here we have set goals as well. They include reduction of the percentage of respirable dust samples (silica and coal mine dust) exceeding the applicable standards, by 5 percent each year.

And we set out a performance standard to reduce the percentage of noise exposures above the action level that would trigger a citation by a like amount.

Before I move on, let me say this about regulations. Any regulation that we recommend will not be done without the most serious consideration. It MUST make a difference in advancing miner health and safety, or else it is superfluous.

And in the case of newly proposed regulations, we will also ask for and consider input from all sectors of the mining community in order to achieve the most workable, effective regulations possible.

Consider the case of MSHA's proposed HAZCOM rule.

After it was published as an interim rule, we felt that our stakeholders had not had sufficient time to provide input. In order to provide that opportunity, we delayed the interim final rule.

This delay was also designed to help assure that mines would have sufficient time to determine how best to achieve compliance, and for our own health and safety specialists to be well-versed in the rule, its requirements and its purpose.

Then there are the diesel particulate regulations for metal and nonmetal mines. After industry challenged these rules, we started a dialogue that helped break down the areas of disagreement. Together with industry and labor representatives, we devised an agreement on some key provisions that could go into effect and would start addressing health concerns immediately.

We were able to agree on conducting joint sampling that should answer the questions that many people have about the reliability of the sampling device and the permissible levels of exposure.

Last summer, we also conducted a series of one-day workshops to assist underground mine operators in complying with the final rule on diesel particulate matter.

These examples illustrate that, while there may be differing opinions, we can reach common ground when we work together.

Just last month, the Department of Labor announced its new regulatory agenda for this year. If you've seen it, you noticed that it is quite a bit shorter than some past agendas. And if you haven't seen it, all I can say is "trust me," it's significantly shorter.

In this new year, we plan to focus our attention strictly on those areas we believe most deserving of our attention.

Instead of spreading our time and attention over a large number of rulemaking projects, many of which have been on the agenda for several years, we will concentrate on a smaller number.

In that list, of course are major pending health rules like HAZCOM, the exposure limit for asbestos in the mining industry, and improving and eliminating regulations.

In any rulemaking we do initiate, your input is critical. I hope that we will continue to work together on the basis of mutual respect, sharing information so that any resulting rules or changes to existing rules will be workable, effective and provide safer and more healthful workplaces.

You may ask, "What can we do right now?"

To maintain the safety records we have achieved and continue the progress, education and training will be critical.

First and foremost, we need to work on making "safety a value" for every person working in every mine on every shift.

Even with last year's overall good safety record, there were a few signs suggesting reasons for concern - clusters of accidents, causing not only non-fatal injuries, but clusters of fatal injuries.

At that time, I suggested that mine operators across the country ask their employees to take a brief time-out, or "stand down for safety," and talk about accidents and trends, and to re-evaluate safety practices and procedures.

Reaching every miner on every shift in our nation's mines has been a tall order. We mailed out packets of safety information that can be used at the mines. We've posted information on MSHA's web site.

We asked all mine operators, regardless of mine type, to take a hard look at safety practices -- to talk to employees about safe practices on the job. We asked for mine operators to review safety procedures in place and to make sure that those procedures are updated and well-understood by all miners. I hope you took part in this effort.

And now, I hope that you will share with your employees the information about accidents last year in Kansas and nationwide. On our web site, you'll find statistics back to the turn of the century that show how far we've come. You'll also find information regarding last year's statistics broken down by type of mine, type of accident, and state, as well as details of each occurrence. And you will find accident prevention tips for you to use at your operations.

Please share this information with your employees and use it as a basis for tailgate safety talks, reaching every miner, as we begin this new year.

Experience shows that nothing gets attention like real information about real accidents that have happened and how similar accidents can be prevented.

A nationwide "stand down for safety" in the mines is a new idea. But by itself, it is not enough to create long-term improvements. Long-term improvements will demand long-term action.

In addition, we must remember our goal to reduce the thousands of nonfatal injuries that occur each year.

As I noted earlier, Kansas has done quite well in this area. At the same time, I think you'll agree that constant attention is needed to maintain these achievements and to go even farther. We need to make safety a value for every miner - and supervisor -- on the job every day.

Last month I traveled to the National Mine Health and Safety Academy to attend the graduation of a new class of mine safety, health and compliance specialists.

Like me, most of these new employees began their MSHA career with 20 to 25 years of mining experience already under their belts.

As I congratulated them on completing a rigorous 23-week training course, I also spoke to them about you and our other stakeholders. Each of our employees, I told them, plays a key role in establishing and maintaining relationships with mine operators, miners and others who have a stake in mine safety and health.

I told them that, as our representatives, they will be expected to uphold the law each and every day, to treat our stakeholders with respect, and to conduct themselves in a professional manner.

At the same time, I told them, that our mission has to be a balanced effort. And I urged them to promote and commit to making "safety a value." And I told them to live that message personally!

I urge you to do the same. Safety is more than just the length of time that has elapsed since your last accident. It is more than just a number and it certainly is more than just a word. It is a "value"-- a very personal value, and one that I hope all of you share.

Carry that message with you each time you drive onto a mine site-each time you deal with a contractor, manufacturer or supplier-supervisor, or miner.

Stress the importance of good safety practices and changing old ways when the old ways are no longer promoting safety. Talk about safe procedures with other personnel and take time to discuss ways to prevent accidents before they happen.

All of us need to promote safe work practices that achieve safe production each and every day.

Only by making safety a value can we expect to make further progress in miner safety and health.

We have some of the safest mining operations in the world...we need to keep them that way. But we also need to do more.

If we persevere and pursue the goals I have put forward, over the next four years the number of fatalities would be reduced by 45 and the industry would have an average lost-day injury rate of 1.72, a rate that would be second to none. These are worthy goals and nothing should sway our determination in achieving these goals. And when we achieve these goals, how will you feel?

As members of this fine organization, you are a critical component of the industry's future health and safety success. We in MSHA appreciate your support. I hope you will continue to be active and continue to seek ways to improve the mining industry as a whole.

Just one more point.

Thinking back to the time around September 11th-- that historic watershed-- one thing I will always remember is how so many mining companies, as well as MSHA's own employees, stepped forward in that emergency to offer any help they could give.

During this time, I will always remember how, again, this industry's rescue teams have responded with selfless heroism and determination.

I would like to challenge you to bring that same determination, that same energy, that same passion to the daily task of preventing accidents.

Working together, 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 miners, their families and your companies.

With all these pieces in place, the puzzle will be complete.

That should be our focus and our goal. We can do it, and I believe with your help, we will.

Thanks again for allowing me to speak to you today. Once again, I offer my sincere congratulations to all of today's award recipients.

God Bless you and God Bless America.

* * * * *