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Remarks of Assistant Secretary of Labor Richard E. Stickler
Mine Safety and Health Administration
26th International Conference on Ground Control in Mining
Morgantown, WV
July 31, 2007

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for your kind introduction.

I would like to thank Dr. Peng and the organizing committee for inviting me to be a part of your conference.

I am happy to be here to help you mark the 26th year of this International Conference in advancing the important field of ground control in mining.

I have spent more than 40 years in the mining industry myself. I know how critical ground control is in mining, and I know from personal experience the value of this conference.

I have attended this conference as often as I could and have learned a great deal every time I attended.

During my career, I experienced difficult conditions first hand. In fact, as I look around, I see people who I've worked with over the years to develop ways to mine safely through some very difficult ground and again I thank you.

There is no doubt that mining technology has advanced during my career, and has dramatically improved miner health and safety.

When I entered the mining industry, we did not have the ground control tools or knowledge we have today.

To give those new to the mining industry some perspective, we did not even have approved roof control plans. We had approved roof and unapproved roof.

Approved roof were areas the mine foreman approved and therefore did not require roof support. Too many times we learned from accidents that these areas should have been supported.

Many of the innovations and technologies we have today were first presented at this conference. The 63 papers from 11 different countries that will be presented at this conference over the next two days indicate that efforts and innovation continue. Thank you all for the work you do to advance ground control techniques and technology.

I understand that there are many mine operators here at this conference. I'm glad to hear that, and glad to see you here. Safety in America's mines must begin at the top and have managers' and supervisors' full support.

I know you will learn from this year's presentations and find them beneficial. You are making a commitment to safety by coming here. Thank you for taking the time to attend.

We have made significant gains in understanding complex ground control issues. Case histories, laboratory and field studies, and improvement in numerical and geologic modeling have all helped us understand the issues.

Once we recognize the problems and understand them, we can take positive steps to reduce or eliminate potential hazards.

As I mentioned earlier, many improvements have also been made in ground control technology. New or improved equipment has led to a significant reduction in ground control related fatalities.

There are many examples of these new technologies that have improved mine safety: Obviously, the list could continue. Many of these topics were first presented to a national and international audience at this conference.

It has been exciting to be a part of the development and implementation of these new and improved innovations.

It is also exciting to imagine the progress that will be made in the future as we build on the knowledge and technology available today. It makes me want to be involved for another 40 years!

When the first ground control conference was held in 1981, 41 miners were fatally injured from roof falls in underground coal mines. Back then, ground-control-related fatalities averaged about 50 per year.

Since 2000, there have been 49 deaths, or an average of about 7 per year. Just four years ago, in 2003, the coal mining industry set a record low with three miners killed from roof or rib falls. Unfortunately, the following 3 years saw increases to 4 in 2004, 9 in 2005, and 10 fatalities in 2006.

So far this year, four coal miners have perished due to ground control accidents. Two miners lost their lives in a single roof fall accident on a retreat section using MRS, and miners died in a surface coal mine highwall collapse.

Although the focus of this conference is largely on underground mining, this highwall accident demonstrates the importance of ground control in surface mines as well.

In addition, two fatal ground failures occurred this year in metal mines - the most recent in a gold mine in Nevada.

Although there has been good progress in reducing ground control fatalities, clearly there is much more work to be done. Our goal is zero fatalities, and we can't be satisfied with anything short of that goal.

A large number of recent ground control related fatalities involve miners who had very little experience at the coal mine where the accident occurred. Of the 49 victims of roof and rib falls since January 2000, nearly half had less than two years' experience at the mine.

Of equal concern are the changing demographics of the mining workforce in the United States. As older, more experienced personnel retire, we are experiencing an influx of inexperienced miners.

It is critical that training programs provide sufficient ground control skills and knowledge to ensure that new miners receive the benefit of all our advances in ground control - and do not have to learn by repeating the mistakes made in the past.

Coal miners continue to fall victim to roof falls inby permanent roof supports. Since 2000, nearly 20% of all roof fall fatalities in underground coal mines have been attributed to travel inby the last row of bolts.

Another increasingly important factor in looking at effective ground control is the fact that coal has been mined in this country for more than 200 years.

Many of today's mines are in coal reserves that had previously been avoided because of poor roof conditions. These mines are frequently deeper and may have mine workings above and/or below them which often exert additional stress on the roof and ribs.

Given the current and rising demand for coal in this country, we can expect that there will continue to be an increase in the number of geologically difficult mines with special ground control challenges.

I am happy to note that NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) is conducting a series of seminars to assist the industry with mine design in multiple seam settings. These seminars target regions that have an abundance of multiple seam scenarios and will benefit from the knowledge and tools NIOSH provides.

MSHA also is conducting targeted outreach programs relating to ground control. For example, MSHA is conducting an annual Preventive Roof/Rib Outreach Program (PROP) to increase awareness among coal mine operators and miners of the hazards that can lead to roof/rib fall accidents, and the precautions necessary to prevent these accidents.

These seminars are held all around the country. The topics are chosen to reflect issues pertinent to the area in which the programs are held.

Three seminars have been conducted so far this year in Beckley, West Virginia, Birmingham, Alabama and Prestonsburg, Kentucky.

MSHA and NIOSH also have worked together to reduce ground fall accidents on room-and-pillar retreat sections.

Roof and rib fatalities and injuries appear to be disproportionately high during retreat mining. For example, since 2000, fourteen of 49 fatalities (29 percent) occurred during room-and-pillar retreat mining operations. This percentage is high when you consider that mines which use this mining method employ only around 19 percent of underground coal miners and account for about 18 percent of the underground coal production. In addition, the actual retreat process accounts for only a portion of the production.

Mobile roof supports offer advantages over timber supports during retreat mining. However, recent fatal accidents during retreat with MRS emphasize the importance of operating procedures to ensure miner safety.

As technology improves production, we will face more challenges to ensure that these new technologies are safe for the miners - and improve the safety profile of the mine operation.

New technology and improvements are exciting. But they can only go so far in helping us prevent ground control issues.

First and foremost, I am a strong believer in education, training and communication.

Educating miners and mine management in identifying and mitigating hazardous ground conditions will go a long way toward reducing the risk of ground control issues to miners and stopping accidents before they happen.

MSHA is committed to providing training and education and technical support to the mining industry in support of our mission to eliminate fatal accidents and to reduce the frequency and severity of nonfatal accidents.

We are equally committed to enforcement as an important tool to improve mine safety and health in this country.

In addition to our outreach efforts, wee periodically conduct special enforcement sweeps in areas with particularly acute ground control issues.

For example, in recognition of the hazards of retreat mining operations, MSHA earlier this year conducted a special emphasis enforcement initiative on retreat mining in Coal District 4 in Southern West Virginia, District 5 in Virginia, and Districts 6 and 7 in Kentucky.

We wanted to observe retreat mining practices and make sure that adequate safety precautions for retreat mining were included in each mine's roof control plan and being followed.

Unfortunately, we found a variety of violations, poor practices, and inadequate safety precautions at these mines.

We will be conducting other kinds of special emphasis enforcement initiatives - including on ground control issues - as accident trends and conditions warrant.

Knowledge and innovation are only effective in improving safety if they are put to use. To accomplish this, safety must be instilled in the culture of every mine.

Over the next few days here at this conference, I know you will hear papers and have discussions on new and innovative changes and advances in ground control.

It is in forums like this one that we all learn about new technologies, new methods and new advances in ground control and safety.

It is through the contributions of people like you that we will continue to have safer mines and safe and healthy miners.

Thank you for listening today, and thank you for your commitment to mine safety and health.