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STATEMENT OF DAVID D. LAURISKI
ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF LABOR FOR
MINE SAFETY AND HEALTH
BEFORE THE
SUBCOMMITTEE ON EMPLOYMENT, SAFETY AND TRAINING
COMMITTEE ON HEALTH, EDUCATION, LABOR AND PENSIONS
UNITED STATES SENATE
July 11, 2002


Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

I am pleased to appear before you today to discuss the ongoing efforts of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to promote miners' safety and health. When I appeared before the full Committee, I talked about my meetings with miners and operators, representatives of industry and labor organizations, State Grant representatives, and many other members of the mining community. These are our stakeholders. I wanted to hear first hand from everyone about their safety and health issues and concerns. Today, I am able to tell you about the outcome of those meetings and the management plan we have developed to guide the Agency as we work to improve miners' safety and health.

I believe it is vitally important to establish rigorous goals. The President has set government-wide management goals we are working to accomplish. Secretary Chao has established a strategic plan for the Department of Labor that sets out four goals, one of which is to foster quality workplaces that are safe, healthy, and fair. And I have challenged our own staff and our stakeholders to work together to meet ambitious, but achievable, goals. Last year, we set meaningful and measurable safety goals to reduce mining industry fatalities and to reduce the non-fatal days lost injury rate. I am happy to report that, in 2001, the toll of mining deaths in this country was the lowest ever recorded.

We have also set health goals to reduce coal mine dust and silica samples that indicate overexposure and to reduce noise levels to below a level which would trigger a citation. And we have set goals for our own internal Agency performance - to establish MSHA as a model workplace. These goals address MSHA employee injury and illness claims, our injury incidence rate, and our workers' compensation costs. I am committed to doing everything we can to meet, or exceed, all of the above goals.

This year, the number of fatalities and the non-fatal injury rates began to rise compared to the same time last year. January was especially disappointing and we knew we had to keep that month's increase in fatalities from becoming a trend. We began a "Focus on Safe Work" initiative. We sent hundreds of MSHA personnel out to all coal and metal and nonmetal mining operations to speak with workers and supervisors about the fatalities that had occurred. We visited nearly 10,000 mine sites and spoke with nearly 150,000 miners, distributing materials and focusing on the unique hazards at particular mines.

While the mining industry has made significant and laudable progress in reducing injuries and fatalities in the past century, beginning in the mid-1990's, there has been no further significant reduction in fatal accident rates. We had reached a plateau and we needed new ideas and methods to get to the next level in safety and health. Some have coined this the "Next Step to Zero." The industry has increased productivity and improved technology, yet the Agency has not significantly changed its business strategy since enactment of the Mine Safety and Health Act in 1977. During my meetings with stakeholders, I heard concern about MSHA's one-dimensional approach: the Agency has primarily emphasized the enforcement mechanisms embodied in the Act -- focusing on physical conditions in the workplace. The Act, however, provides us with a broad range of tools, such as education and training -- which includes compliance assistance -- and technical support, in addition to enforcement. I believe that these additional tools will lead us to the next level of improved safety performance.

MSHA staff reached out to hundreds of stakeholders, following my own initial meetings with them. These stakeholders included mine operators, miners, equipment manufacturers, and others. Following our meetings with stakeholders, we studied their comments and suggestions. They said they want us to be more proactive. This is just what the Secretary has asked all of the Department of Labor to do -- to use tools that are preventative rather than reactive.

Based on the input from our stakeholders, we devised a management plan that will meet the challenges of the 21st Century and help move the mining industry to a new level of safety and health. The plan focuses on more collaboration with stakeholders, assistance to the industry in preventing accidents and illnesses, and improvements in our internal practices to enhance mine safety and health performance. I took this plan back to our stakeholders with the challenge for them to work with us to get to the next level of safety -- to take that next step to zero. And I asked for their commitment to work collectively to meet the goals I spoke of earlier. To this, they have all agreed.

Enforcement

MSHA will continue to enforce the Act and meet its mandate for four inspections per year at each underground mine and two inspections per year at each surface mine. I want to emphasize that there will be no less enforcement. Our efforts will strike a healthy balance between enforcement, education and training, technical support, and compliance assistance. Enforcement will be more focused on problem areas. Using mine profiles, our safety, health, and compliance specialists will concentrate on those areas or activities that are more likely to produce accidents that cause injuries or create health problems. We are improving training for the specialists to increase their capabilities and improve consistency. When they visit mines, they are becoming more prepared to focus on overall safety and health matters and identify system weaknesses that may lead to accidents. These weaknesses may be violations of existing regulations or weaknesses not covered by regulations, either of which could lead to an injury or illness.

Since we began our compliance assistance efforts last year, some skeptics have said that we cannot increase compliance assistance without lessening enforcement. I respectfully disagree. As you can see in this chart, there was an increase in the number of citations and orders we issued (five and one-third percent, to be exact) from 2000 to 2001. This increase cannot be attributed solely to a rise in the number of mines because we know that there was only a one and one-third percent increase in the number of mines during the same period.

Mr. Chairman, I use this statistic advisedly to show that MSHA is committed to, and will continue its commitment to, enforcement. But, MSHA's principal objective is not to issue citations -- it is to reduce fatalities and injuries. We do not believe that the number of citations issued should become the measure of effectiveness in achieving our objective.

Training and Education

Our safety and health compliance specialists are dedicated to mine safety and health. They are highly trained professionals. Many have received professional certification in their field and more are working toward certification. We are revamping our internal training program to strengthen our process, to correct any existing weaknesses or gaps, and, most importantly, to further support our own staff's health and safety skill sets.

Our stakeholders, from the individual miner at the mine to the CEO of a company, have told us that training for the mining industry is crucial to the success of our program to reduce accidents and illnesses. We are responding to their call for more user-friendly training materials for mine operators and miners. They also called for more mine site training where safe practices related to specific problems can be demonstrated. Our safety and health compliance specialists are now providing such training when they uncover system deficiencies at mines. We are also exploring innovative approaches to delivering training, such as web-based learning, DVDs, and the use of simulation devices.

Secretary Chao recently announced a major new compliance assistance initiative to help employers better understand and meet their responsibilities to protect workers. We know that the vast majority of mine operators want to comply but are often hampered by the volume and complexity of the regulations. If we are to get to the next level of safety, we have to make mine operators our allies and give them the help they need, not just to comply with regulations, but to have a broader view of how to identify and prevent hazards, and the importance of compliance. We need partnerships where we share abilities and information. For example, we are developing materials on "Best Practices" culled from industry, labor, academia, and MSHA experience for use at all mines, but most importantly to assist mines with poor performance or limited resources.

In support of the Administration's initiative, we in MSHA have developed a Compliance Assistance Plan that sets out the specific steps we are taking to improve our outreach to mine operators and miners. Compliance assistance can mean different things to different people. We use the term broadly to identify concepts and accident prevention activities such as education and training, accident and violation analysis, hazard identification, root cause analysis, technical support, and access to information. Access to information means the information is readable, easily understood, and written in plain language the reader understands -- in other words, "user-friendly". Because we know that there are increasing numbers of Spanish-speaking workers in the mining industry, we have translated numerous "best practices" cards, student and instructor guides, entire training programs, and handout materials. We will very shortly make available all materials on our web site in Spanish.

Our web site, www.msha.gov, provides access to a multitude of resources for compliance assistance. We have posted a list of the 20 standards most often cited by major commodity and mining type and are beginning to post best practices information for each of those. On the web site, miners and mine operators can find safety tips, accident investigation reports, hazard alerts and bulletins, and "single source" pages. These pages give the user access to all documents and resources related to a particular standard, especially new ones. It also provides access to MSHA's Data Retrieval System which permits miners, operators and other interested parties to retrieve mine overviews, accident histories, violation histories, MSHA dust sampling results, operator dust sampling results, and employment/production data. More reports will be added to this system as time progresses.

Compliance assistance is always needed when new regulations are issued. I believe that the assistance should be rendered before the regulation becomes effective so that everyone is aware of their obligations and knows how to comply. Just last month we issued a new final rule on hazard communication. It will take effect on September 23, 2002 for mines with more than five miners. Prior to that date, we will hold 15 National Roll Out Meetings and about 100 supplemental local meetings to give each of those mine operators the opportunity to learn how to comply with the rule. The rule will become effective on March 21, 2003 for mines with five or fewer miners. We are preparing to provide on-site compliance assistance to those mines prior to that date.

Small Mines

When we set the effective date of the hazard communication rule, we specifically considered the impact on small mines. Operators of small mines face unique challenges in protecting their workers. In the metal and nonmetal mining industry, about one-half of all mines employ five or fewer miners. In the coal industry, about one-fourth employ five or fewer miners. Small mines typically have fewer resources to devote to safety and health and often lack the expertise to implement accident prevention programs. Small mines have higher fatality rates. In calendar year 2000, mines with five or fewer employees had a fatal incidence rate four times greater than the rate at operations employing 20 or more. To bring small mines to the next level of safety, we are developing a small mine initiative. We are establishing an Office of Small Mine Health and Safety in our Directorate of Educational Policy and Development. The Office will coordinate a national program to assure compliance at small mines and to give compliance assistance. The staff will determine the special needs of small mine operators and assist in development of programs to address those needs.

Regulations

When developing regulations, we assess the impact of the regulations on all mines, and on small operators in particular. We are reviewing existing regulations to determine applicability to current mining practices and to identify those that create undue burden on small mine operators. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about.

I spoke with a mine operator in the bluestone industry who was the only miner at his operation located in the back yard of his home. MSHA's rules require that each mine have a stretcher to be used to transport injured miners. He asked me why he had to have a stretcher if there was no one to carry him out on the stretcher. My answer to him was that this was a prime example of a well-intentioned rule that was not flexible and which needs to be reassessed to allow alternate methods of complying with the intent of the rule. This is but one example where a one-size rule does not "fit all".

MSHA has published several important final rules recently. The hazard communication rule, an information and training rule, will reduce injuries and illnesses related to chemicals in the mining industry by increasing miners' and mine operators' awareness of chemical hazards. The high-voltage longwall rule allows a mine to use current technology without the need to petition the Agency for a modification of a standard. This rule recognizes that advanced technology, already in widespread use in the mining industry, can be used safely when it meets new requirements for the design, construction, installation, use and maintenance of high-voltage longwall equipment and associated cables.

When I appeared before the full Committee, we discussed the Office of the Inspector General's recommendation that we take regulatory action on asbestos in three areas. They recommended that we lower the existing permissible exposure limit for asbestos, change our analytical method to quantify and identify fibers in our asbestos samples, and address take-home contamination from asbestos. Subsequent to that hearing, we issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in March 2002 requesting information and data from the public to assist us in our deliberations on these three issues. The last of seven public meetings on this issue was held on June 20. We also solicited written comments and the public comment period just closed on July 9, 2002. We will use the input obtained at these meetings, as well as the written comments, to assist us as we move forward in our decision-making process.

We will continue our work on health rules that will control respirable coal mine dust. These rules would require the mine operator to verify the effectiveness of their mine ventilation plan to control respirable coal dust under typical mining conditions and to make adjustments as necessary. We anticipate proposing a rule that would allow us to accept testing and evaluation of certain mine equipment by independent laboratories. Our proposed rule on the use of belt entry ventilation for coal mines recognizes that improved technology, such as new atmospheric monitoring systems, makes it possible to safely use this type of ventilation system. We are looking carefully at ways we might provide flexibility in our current rules that would encourage mine operators to increase the number and quality of mine rescue teams. These teams are critical in life-threatening emergencies underground.

Technical Support

While mine operators provide rescue teams, MSHA gives technical assistance to the operators during mine emergencies. That is just one of the many ways we give technical assistance. We have on staff experts on ventilation, roof support, electricity, ground stability, structural analysis, impoundment stability, mine fires and explosions, and chemical exposure. These people are creating partnerships with other government agencies, equipment manufacturers, mining companies, and trade and labor organizations to more effectively identify and evaluate technological solutions to mining hazards. We are also identifying new technologies to address emerging hazards.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, when I arrived at MSHA I found very competent staff who care deeply about the safety and health of miners. With this expert resource, we needed to examine our way of business and look for new ways to use our existing tools to get to the next level of improved safety and health performance. I have just outlined some of those for you. I am confident that, working with our stakeholders, we can achieve our goals.

Mr. Chairman, other members of the Committee, that concludes my prepared remarks. I would be happy to answer any questions.

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