Joseph A. Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Mine Safety and Health
42nd Annual West Virginia Mining Symposium
West Virginia Coal Association
January 29, 2015
I appreciate the opportunity to be here today to discuss the state of coal mine safety and health. MSHA, the mining industry, and others have made many improvements, particularly in the past five years, that are laying the foundation for better protections for miners and changing the culture of mine safety in a positive way. We are seeing new lows in respirable dust levels in coal mines, significant reductions in the number of chronic violators, improved industry regulatory compliance, successful implementation of new standards and, in recent years, the lowest fatal and injury rates in mining history.
Since I arrived at MSHA, engagement with and outreach to the mining community has been a central part of the agency’s approach. I, along with top MSHA staff, regularly travel out to the mining community and mines to see mine operations first hand and meet with industry stakeholders, miners and mine operators on mine safety and health.
Recently, I visited the Jim Walter Resources #7 Mine in Alabama, the Alpha Natural Resources Cumberland and Emerald Mines in Pennsylvania, and the Alliance Resource Partners, L.P. Gibson North Mine in Indiana. At those mines, I saw innovative rockdusting of conveyor belt entries to prevent coal dust explosions, state of the art respirable dust controls on longwalls to prevent pneumoconiosis, proximity detection technology on continuous mining machines to protect miners from crushing accidents, innovative and worker friendly roof control systems and well-designed wash down underground coal transfer units to better control coal dust and spillage. I have travelled the world visiting mines, and I can tell you that the advancements I saw at these mines in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Indiana are furthering mine safety and health.
At the end of the day, the most important measure of our progress is how many miners go home at the end of each shift safe and healthy. Preliminary results show that 41 miners died in 2014. Sixteen deaths were at coal mines, the lowest number of mining deaths ever recorded in mining history. The 25 deaths at metal and nonmetal mines were an increase from last year.
Five of the 16 coal deaths were here in West Virginia, while Virginia, Kentucky, and Wyoming each had two, and one fatality occurred in Indiana, Illinois, Alabama, Utah, and Montana. Eleven were at underground mines and five were at surface mines. There were five powered haulage, five machinery, three fall of face/rib/pillar or highwall, one electrical and one drowning deaths. For more detailed information on these fatalities please visit our website at http://www.msha.gov/fatals.
A few statistics illustrate how MSHA’s efforts, along with those of the industry, have saved miners’ lives. Just two decades ago in the 1990's, when mining employment for both coal and metal and nonmetal mines were roughly same as they are today, an average of about 96 miners died each year in our nation’s mines. By contrast, in the first half of this decade -- 2010 thru 2014 - - an average of 45 died. That is half of the 1990's average. In coal, the average number of deaths in the 1990s, at 45, dropped to 25 in the first half of this decade. Moreover, since 2010, and following many actions we have implemented to make mines safer, average coal mine fatalities have dropped to about 19 a year.
The mining industry’s yearly fatal rates tell a similar story, averaging about .0287 in the 1990's to an average of about half that at .0146 in the first 4 years of this decade --2010 through 2013. For coal, the 1990's yearly fatal rate averaged .0364, but dropped about 40 percent or to .0218 for the recent 4 year period. These most recent rates include the deaths from the 2010 mine disaster here in West Virginia.
While we continue to make real progress, I believe we can all agree that there is much more to do to protect our nation’s miners and reach our goal of zero fatalities. Certainly, the increase in metal and nonmetal deaths from the historic lows that the industry had experienced in recent years makes that point very clearly.
During the past five years we have worked hard at MSHA to retool mine safety and health. As the statistics show, those actions, coupled with those by the mining industry and others, have advanced safety and health in a number of areas, including strategic initiatives we began in the months after I first arrived at MSHA, such as the End Black Lung - Act Now campaign; the Rules to Live By initiative focusing on preventing the most common causes of deaths; more aggressive use of the Mine Act to protect miners from retaliation when they speak out about unsafe conditions; increasing MSHA stakeholder engagement; encouraging mine operators to take more responsibility to find and fix hazards; and improving MSHA enforcement consistency.
Following the 2010 West Virginia mining tragedy we all dug deeper to improve mine safety. For example, at MSHA we beefed up enforcement of existing regulations, overhauled the virtually unused Pattern of Violations enforcement tool to rein in chronic violators and launched strategic enforcement actions such as the monthly impact inspection program to target unsafe and problem mines. Additionally, we overhauled how the agency does business, implementing about 100 reforms identified in internal and independent audit recommendations.
We also have been engaged in strategic rulemaking, focusing on our most important priorities and relying on public input to build efficient and effective regulations. This approach has allowed us to finalize a number of rules critical to mine safety and health including, a rule on Coal Mine Dust Sampling Devices finalized in 2010 that approves the use of the new cutting edge continuous personal dust monitoring device or CPDM to provide in real time the respirable dust levels miners are exposed to throughout a shift; an emergency rule in 2010 and later a final rule in 2011 on the Maintenance of Incombustible Content of Rock Dust in Underground Coal Mines that increases the required amount of rock dust to prevent coal dust explosions; a final rule on Examinations of Work Areas in Underground Coal Mines for Violations of Mandatory Health or Safety Standards implemented in 2012 requiring mine operators to conduct more thorough workplace examinations to find and fix conditions related to nine standards commonly cited by MSHA and the Rules to Live By to reduce injuries, illnesses and deaths; a final rule in 2013 on the Pattern of Violations to better rein in mines with chronic violation records; a final rule in 2014 on Lowering Miners’ Exposure to Respirable Coal Mine Dust, Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors that is the culmination of our End Black Lung---Act Now campaign, aimed at ending the black lung disease that has claimed tens of thousands of lives; and most recently, the final rule published in January on Proximity Detection Systems for Continuous Mining Machines in Underground Coal Mines that will prevent miners from being crushed by continuous mining machines.
Let me share with you the results of these actions. We are making progress on black lung and each year since implementation of the End Black Lung initiative in late 2009, respirable dust levels have continuously trended downward.
The yearly average of respirable dust levels of designated mining occupations in underground coal mines, from mine operator samples, dropped to an historic low level in 2014 of 0.67 milligrams per cubic meter of air (m/mg3), down from 0.77 m/mg3 in 2009. The yearly average of respirable dust levels of designated mining occupations in samples collected by MSHA inspectors in 2014 dropped to an average of 0.70 m/mg3 compared to 0.83m/mg3 in 2009.
These sampling results show a close correlation between MSHA and operator results, indicating that better dust controls are now in place in underground mines and in operation for longer periods of time when miners are working. That is good news for coal miners.
In addition, MSHA recently compiled the results of the dust samples collected by our agency and mine operators since Phase 1 of the new Respirable Dust rule went into effect August 1 through December 31, 2014. The results show extremely high compliance with the new standards, with 99% of the 23,600 valid samples meeting compliance levels.
Of the total respirable dust samples collected in this five-month period, 17,949 were taken from 319 underground mines and 252 of those samples (or 1.4 percent) exceeded compliance levels used to determine if a violation is warranted.
Prior to the Dust rule’s implementation, MSHA conducted what is likely the most extensive outreach and support to the industry in advance of the effective date of a single rule. Those efforts, along with the commitment and compliance actions of the mining industry, led to a smooth implementation of Phase I of the rule. We are continuing to work with the mining industry to prepare for the next phase of the Rule, which will go into effect in February of 2016.
In addition, MSHA’s revised Pattern of Violations (POV) enforcement program aimed at chronic violators has substantially reduced the number of problem mines, led to significant improvements of mines’ safety records and reduced the overall high violation rates found prior to the 2010 reforms.
In 2010, when MSHA first used the revised potential POV screening tool, 51 mines were identified for further review. Using the same screening criteria, 12 mines were identified in this year’s screening – a 76 percent reduction in the universe of potential chronic violators.
The most significant reduction was in the coal sector, which accounted for 42 screened mines in 2010 and only six in the recent 2014 screening – an 86 percent reduction.
Mines, including coal and metal nonmetal mines that have been placed under a POV action, have significantly improved their compliance. The latest review of these mines shows that S&S violations dropped by 62 percent and the operator-reported rate of lost-time injuries went down 48 percent. Notably, unwarrantable failures dropped by 81 percent. In addition, from 2010 to 2014 there was a 30 percent drop in S&S violations among the top 200 coal and metal nonmetal mines ranked by number of S&S issuances. This indicates a broader industry improvement.
The special impact inspection program MSHA launched in 2010 also had a positive effect. We have conducted 863 targeted impact inspections, resulting in improved compliance and safer mines as a result. Through these impact inspections, MSHA has been able to address problems, especially at mines with escalating violations, more quickly.
Overall citations and orders issued to coal mine operators have declined since 2010 from about 96,352 to 62,828 in 2014. While mine closures have impacted those reductions, compliance improvements did occur, particularly at those mines undergoing POV and impact inspections.
On January 13, 2015, MSHA published another new final rule that had been years in the making, applying a technology to prevent miners from being crushed and killed by large continuous mining machines as they change locations in an underground coal mine. Since 1984, 35 coal miners have died in these accidents.
The final rule, effective March 16, 2015, requires operators of underground coal mines to equip place-changing continuous mining machines with proximity detection systems.
MSHA started rulemaking on proximity detection in 2010 as this technology was emerging and a number of mining companies were beginning to install proximity detection systems. The final rule establishes performance and maintenance requirements for these systems and requires training for persons performing the installation and maintenance.
The rule includes phase-in periods of 8 to 36 months to give mine operators ample time to obtain MSHA approvals, modify continuous mining machines to meet the new requirements and provide training to miners. This rule will save lives and has the potential to dramatically improve the safety of mining operations.
To date, approximately 425 continuous mining machines have been equipped with proximity detection systems. Alliance Resource Partners, L.P. is one of the pioneers in this area, installing this lifesaving technology on 82 continuous mining machines.
Other mining companies, such as Alpha Natural Resources, Affinity Mining Co., and Consol Energy also employ the technology.
MSHA is currently finalizing development of a proposed rule regarding equipping sectional mining equipment with proximity detection. There have been over 40 deaths since 1984 involving sectional mine equipment in underground coal mines.
In addition in July 2014, MSHA published a proposed rule on Part 100 to simplify the criteria under its current civil penalty regulation.
MSHA, the mining industry, NIOSH and manufacturers also continue to work on issues regarding refuge alternatives.
In August 2013, MSHA issued a Request for Information or RFI requesting data, comments and information on issues and options relevant to miners' escape and refuge that may present more effective solutions than the existing rule during underground coal mine emergencies. Responses to the RFI, due April 2, will assist MSHA in determining if changes to existing practices and regulations would improve the overall strategy for survivability, escape and training to protect miners in an emergency.
MSHA has many other ongoing activities, all dedicated to the same goal: the protection of miners. We want to ensure that miners are protected if they speak out about unsafe conditions at their mines. MSHA cannot be present at all mines all the time, so we rely on miners to bring hazardous conditions to the attention of the agency and mine management.
In 2014, MSHA, working with our Solicitor of Labor, filed 49 105(c) discrimination complaints on behalf of miners, the most in any year in MSHA history. The agency also filed at least 45 actions for temporary reinstatements, the second largest after 2012, when it filed 47.
MSHA, with SOL, is also having success reducing the backlog of contested citations and orders that existed since before my arrival at the agency in late 2009. From a high of about 89,000 citations at the end of December, 2010, the backlog, as of November 30, 2014, stood at about 27,500 cases, or a reduction of more almost 70 percent. The backlog is now well below 2008 levels.
To improve the effectiveness of our education and training program, last summer MSHA merged its field Educational Field Services and the Small Mine Consultation Program into a single program. With this change, MSHA is able to better coordinate compliance assistance and training activities to small mines and the mining community. Training field staff are carrying out both functions with increased dialogue with industry stakeholders.
In addition, MSHA began a stakeholder outreach initiative by holding quarterly conference calls with trainers across the nation. This allows MSHA to share information of value to trainers and hear back from them on ways we can provide greater assistance. We have also created a new single source training page for them.
We are working on a number of projects with stakeholder alliances that will advance mine safety. These will complement the metal nonmetal guidance on guarding and fall protection that has improved compliance significantly. Recent MSHA guidance on ladder safety at metal nonmetal mines and on hazard communication affecting all mines should also produce improved compliance. In addition, we are modernizing the MSHA website and finalizing new web tools mines can use to monitor compliance with Rules to Live By standards and the nine standards contained in the 2012 examination rule.
Mine emergency response is another important area where we are working with our stakeholders to make a real difference. While we all hope that an accident never happens, when it does, we want rescuers on the front lines to be fully prepared to take on these challenges. Together, we have created the National Holmes Mine Rescue Association as a national organization, to provide guidance and support for mine rescue.
This is in addition to MSHA’s activities to improve mine emergency response capabilities. We are completing the development of state of the art communication, tracking, mapping and atmospheric monitoring technologies to use during mine rescue that will speed up mine rescue efforts and make them safer. These systems will link advancing rescue teams directly with the command center during mine rescue operations. We expect to have work completed on these this summer and will equip all four of our MEO sites with them. We will be following up with the mine rescue community to train mine rescue teams, expand the availability of the new technology and finalize MSHA’s emergency response reforms that I began in 2010.
In 2013 we declared that each October 30th will be recognized as “Mine Rescue Day” to honor the sacrifices of mine rescuers---past, present and future---who place their own lives at risk to save others. We will be working with the mine rescue community to increase national awareness of those who have dedicated themselves to mine rescue.
While we have certainly made improvements and seen promising results, the mining deaths that occurred last year are a reminder of both the progress we have made and the work we have left to do. Going forward and in 2015, MSHA will continue its mission to make mines a safer and healthier place to work, and I am certain you will all do the same. The real question is will we be able to sustain the improvements we have made and continue to build upon them---time will tell.
Certainly, the progress we have made in recent years lets us know that greater improvements are possible and together, we need to work toward that end. We owe the nation’s miners that much. I know that President Obama and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez share this goal.