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Remarks of Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor Richard E. Stickler
Mine Safety and Health Administration
West Virginia Coal Association 35th Annual Mining Symposium
Charleston, West Virginia
January 10, 2008

Good afternoon and thank you for that kind introduction.

I want to thank the WV Coal Association and all those that worked hard to plan, organize and conduct this conference especially those giving presentations.

I commend Governor Manchin and Senator Rockefeller for taking time from their busy schedule to help make this conference successful.

Thank all of you for being here today and for your commitment to mine safety and health.

I believe the highlight of this conference is the presentation of the Mountaineer Guardian Safety Awards to those individuals whose operations achieved outstanding safety records.

My participation in the presentation of these awards and the opportunity to congratulate the winners is most satisfying. I am very proud of their safety performance.

When I spoke with you last year, I'd been with MSHA for just a few months. I outlined some of my top priorities and today I want to provide a brief summary of our progress to date.

Implementation of the new MINER Act was one of my top priorities, and with your help we have made considerable progress.

In December 2006, we published the Final Rule on Emergency Mine Evacuation.

It included additional requirements for Self-Contained Self Rescuers (SCSRs) and their storage, improved training and escape drills, lifelines, multi-gas detectors, and immediate accident notification.

These safety protections are now fully implemented except cases where manufactures have not been able to supply enough SCSR's. We expect this backlog to be eliminated soon.

MSHA also developed and implemented a web based SCSR database to help us locate SCSRs affected by future recalls.

The database will also be used by MSHA and NIOSH to randomly select and collect SCSRs deployed at mines for testing in NIOSH's Long Term Field Evaluation Program.

To date, the database has been populated with 71,300 SCSRs.

We have also put into place an improved penalty structure as required by the MINER Act.

Right after the President signed the Act, MSHA immediately issued policies to propose increased minimum penalties for unwarrantable failure and immediate accident notification violations.

In November 2006 we implemented the MINER Act provisions for flagrant violations. As of January 1, 2008, 15 flagrant violations have been assessed, with 22 more in progress. Four have been assessed the maximum penalty of $220,000.

A final rule increasing civil monetary penalties was published March 22, 2007. It included those penalties and increased civil penalty amounts for other categories of mine safety and health violations.

The amount of penalties we assessed increased over 100% last year. In 2006, assessed penalties totaled $35 million; in 2007, assessed penalties totaled $74.6 million.

I believe that this increased penalty structure will provide a greater incentive for operators to insure that safety and health laws are followed, which will result in safer working conditions for our miners.

We have also implemented several changes to improve our civil penalty payment process to streamline debt collection and make the process more efficient.

Since August of 2006 operators have been required to submit their Emergency Response Plans for MSHA approval.

In February of 2007, MSHA issued guidance to mine operators about acceptable quantities and delivery methods for breathable air in underground coal mines.

In addition to breathable air, the ERPs must address post-accident communications and tracking, lifelines, training, and local coordination.

I am pleased to announce that ERPs have been approved and are being implemented for all underground coal mines as specified in the Act. We are however concerned about the extended delivery dates for breathable air supplies.

The MINER Act requires mine operators to adopt two-way wireless communications and electronic tracking systems by June 2009. In the mean time all mines have installed redundant communications systems as required by the miner act. MSHA has observed testing or demonstration of 26 communications and/or tracking systems at various mine sites.

And we are currently investigating 48 approval applications for communications and tracking technology.

The MINER Act required MSHA to be the primary communicator with families at mine disaster sites.

In November 2006, MSHA implemented a Family Liaison Program to provide an MSHA liaison to be with families at the site of an accident in which miners are unaccounted for or when there are multiple fatalities.

Fourteen MSHA family liaisons have completed their formal training. They served in vital roles at mine accidents last year in Maryland and Utah.

The MINER Act also requires MSHA to issue mandatory safety standards relating to the sealing of abandoned areas in underground coal mines.

MSHA's accident investigation report findings on the Sago and Darby mine explosions showed us that the seals requirements that existed since 1992 were not protective enough.

In May 2007 for only the fourth time in the history of the Mine Act, MSHA issued an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to strengthen the design, construction, maintenance and repair of seals, as well as requirements for sampling and controlling atmospheres behind seals.

The ETS was effective immediately upon issuance.

Last month, we reopened the comment period on the ETS for the mining community to review and submit comments on the Army Corps of Engineers draft report on the Sago Mine Accident.

We will also hold a public hearing on January 15 at MSHA headquarters in Arlington Virginia.

After the close of the comment period on Jan 18th, we will review the comments and any new information we have received and will continue to work toward a Final Rule on sealing abandoned areas to be published early this year.

The MINER Act required the MSHA to issue regulations to address improved training, certification, availability, and composition requirements for underground coal mine rescue teams.

In September we issued a proposed rule for mine rescue teams for underground coal mines, and an update to regulations on mine rescue equipment which applies to both coal and metal/nonmetal mines.

The final mine rescue team rule is currently undergoing review at the Office of Management and Budget.

The rulemaking on mine rescue equipment is not required by the MINER Act, but it is complementary to the mine rescue team rule. We expect to publish the final equipment rule later this year.

The MINER Act also required MSHA to establish a Technical Study Panel to make recommendations concerning the use of belt air to ventilate the working face areas of a mine and the composition and fire retardant properties of belt materials.

The Technical Study Panel report was submitted to the Secretary of Labor on December 20, 2007. We are carefully evaluating this report.

We will move as quickly as possible to implement appropriate recommendations and/or rulemaking by June and issue final regulations by the end of this year.

MINER Act required National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to submit a report to the Secretary of Labor analyzing refuge alternatives in underground coal mines.

MSHA is awaiting the final report from NIOSH, but once finalized, we are prepared to move quickly to institute appropriate rulemaking by June and issue final regulations by December 31 of this year.

As you can see we have made great strides in implementing the MINER Act. This could not have been possible without your commitment, hard work and resources, for that commend and I thank you.

We also continue other rulemaking activities as well, including drafting a final rule on an asbestos exposure limit that proposes to update MSHA's asbestos standard to be consistent with OSHA's standard.

Another priority I listed for you last year was hiring 170 new coal enforcement personnel provided for by Congress.

Since July 2006, we have hired 273 coal mine enforcement personnel. Accounting for attrition, we have had a net increase of 177 enforcement personnel, exceeding our goal.

We believe that this increase of new enforcement personnel will dramatically enhance MSHA's performance in the future.

I strongly believe the increased presence of MSHA enforcement staff at the job sites will have a positive impact on mine safety and health.

To make sure we have an increased MSHA presence at mining operations, last October I announced the implementation of MSHA's new 100 Percent Inspection Plan.

If successful, this Plan will mark the first time in resent history that we have completed 100% of our mandated regular inspections.

This plan calls for the temporary reassignment of MSHA inspectors to areas where they are most needed and provides for increased overtime hours needed to complete inspections until all our new inspector trainees are fully qualified.

We are implementing the plan now, and I'm looking forward to good results. Since we instituted this program, we are firmly on target to meet all of our mandated inspection requirements. And we are continuing the investigation of the tragic accident at Crandall Canyon Mine in Huntington, Utah.

The mining industry can anticipate additional protective measures as we learn more about the accident and can identify steps we can take to prevent similar accidents in the future.

I also told you last year that one of my priorities was to ensure that MSHA effectively uses all the tools available to us and focus on the basics of mine safety and health.

I can tell you today that MSHA is aggressively using these tools, including strong enforcement, education and training, and technology.

We continue to be particularly aggressive with those mine operators who repeatedly violate MSHA standards and seem to view penalties as just another cost of doing business.

The Mine Act authorizes MSHA to issue a withdrawal order for each Significant & Substantial (S&S) violation after a notice that the mine operator has a pattern of violations of mandatory standards that could have significantly and substantially contributed to mine hazards.

MSHA developed a data base and computer screening process to identify mines that may have a potential pattern of violations.

We have to date sent out two rounds of notices to mines that exhibit a potential pattern of violations. The first round of notices was sent last June to 8 mining operations.

Six of them have since met or exceeded the necessary criteria for reducing violation rates. They have successfully and dramatically reduced their significant and substantial (S&S) violation rates - on average, by 50 percent, but we strongly encourage these operators to continue to improve their compliance record.

We continue to closely monitor the progress of a seventh mine that underwent a change of ownership and management, and the eighth has been inactive since July.

In December of last year, we notified 20 additional mine operators that they have met the criteria for potential pattern of violations.

We will be monitoring these 20 operations very closely, and expect that they will follow the good example set by 6 of the mines notified last June and reduce their violation rates accordingly. Another basic of mine safety and health is education and training.

In 2006 there was a net gain of 20,000 miners due to the growth in the industry.

With 350,000 miners and a 10% annual attrition rate, another 35,000 new miners entered the industry to replace those leaving.

That is a total of 55,000 new miners entering the industry all of whom must be properly trained.

I expect the attrition rate of 10% per year to continue for the near term because of the retirement of the Baby Boomers.

Proper safety training, for these new miners is critical.

The entire mining community - and MSHA - must work together to get ahead of this with more education and training.

For the 1st time even MSHA recently awarded $ 500,000 for Brookwood Sago training grants to address new mine safety education and training.

The third basic is technical support to develop technical solutions to health and safety problems and assist in their application in the mines.

We continue to help the mining industry learn about new technologies and how to apply them to improve safety and health.

We are constantly looking at promising technologies for their application in the mines. Many of these new technologies will help address MINER Act requirements.

We are also holding ourselves to strict standards. Last June, I established an Office of Accountability to increase oversight and examination of existing enforcement programs within MSHA.

I appointed Charlie Thomas, a native of Fairmont, West Virginia, to head the new office.

This division will conduct oversight reviews to ensure that management controls are in place and fully implemented to prevent potential lapses in enforcement policies and procedures, and to ensure the implementation of actions recommended as a result of MSHA audits and internal reviews.

I'd like to share a few numbers to give you a sense of our performance last year.

There were 33 fatalities in the nation's coal mines and also 31 fatalities in this country's metal and nonmetal mines in 2007 - for a total of 64 miners who we lost last year.

These are miners who will not be returning to their families. And these are deaths that we can and we must prevent.

Our ultimate goal is to send every miner home safe and healthy at the end of every shift. We still have a lot of work to reach that goal.

To those who say that injuries and illnesses are inevitable in mining, I ask you to consider that;

In 2006, there were more than 3,700 mining operations nationwide that worked the entire year with zero lost time and restricted injuries. These operations were identified through the Sentinels of Safety award program.

These 3,700 operations worked more than 80 million combined total hours with no lost time or restricted injuries.

That is equivalent to a 40,000-employee operation working an entire year without a single lost time or restricted injury.

Last year KY the state with most mines, most miners and the 2nd highest underground production had zero fatalities in their underground mines.

So, there is proof that it can be done. Working together we can make this an injury and fatal-free industry.

I want to compliment and thank those thousands of miners, supervisors, and operators who have contributed to this accomplishment by putting safety first in their operations. We can all learn a lot from these successful operations.

Every chance I have I like to visit Safety award winners to learn about how they achieved our ultimate goal of zero injuries.

I have learned that they all work hard to implement and exceed what I refer to as the basics of mine safety and health. These basics are illustrated and communicated by MSHA's triangle of success.

You may have seen the stickers that MSHA hands out to miners that show the three sides of our triangle of success. One side is education and training, the second side is use of technology and the third side is compliance with and enforcement of safe job procedures and safety laws.

Successful operations all go beyond the basic legal requirements for these areas.

They conduct risk assessments to identify the hazards of every job and task and establish safe job procedures to mitigate all risk.

They provide extensive education and training so every employee understands hazards and safe procedures for their job.

They exceed the basic safety and health laws by establishing compliance with additional company safety rules to protect workers.

They protect the safety and health of their workers by using available technologies that are not required by law.

Most important they empower all employees to correct hazards and at risk practices, and in many cases they reward their employees for doing so.

When you see employees that feel free to point out hazards and at risk practices to supervisors and managers you know that top management values safety.

I have also seen that operations that have established outstanding safety performance are proud to share their methods with others. I encourage everyone to learn from them.

Thank you for coming and sharing your ideas about safety and health, and thank you for your attention.

I am happy to address any questions or concerns.