By Dave D. Lauriski
Assistant Secretary Of Labor For
Mine Safety And Health
Outlines His Goals For
Mine Safety And Health
In The Years Ahead
It's a real pleasure to be here. I am happy to see some familiar faces here today, including some I have known for years, and for the privilege of meeting many, many others over the course of the next few weeks and months.
I am here today as much to learn about your needs as to tell you what I hope to accomplish in my new position.
I have belonged to the mining community all my life. For more than 30 years I have devoted my career to mine safety and health, and I am truly passionate about the subject. I feel greatly honored to have been selected by the President to work in public service and in particular, to lead an organization whose mission is to protect the health and safety of the miners.
And at my swearing-in, when I raised my right hand, placed my left hand on the Bible, and repeated my oath of office after Secretary Chao, I realized even more profoundly the responsibility that I was undertaking. I take that responsibility very seriously. It is a privilege to have this chance to work with you on the important mission of protecting miners' safety and health.
On coming into this new job, I've become responsible for all the aspects of MSHA's role, including enforcement, education and training, technical support. There are a great many issues to be learned quickly and decisions waiting to be made. I have tried to come to the task with an open mind and very few preconceptions.
I am listening intensively to groups and individuals throughout the mining community in order to understand the perspectives of all our stakeholders. In this, your input is extremely important to me. And I want you to know that will not change. I will continue to ask for and to value your input for as long as I serve in this role. While I may not always agree, or may choose to move in a different fashion than you might like, I will at least have the benefit of your thoughts before I make a reasoned decision.
Everyone in the mining community can take pride in the health and safety record that our industry has achieved over the past 30 years.
In metal and nonmetal mines, fatal injuries also have dropped steeply, from a 1970 figure of 165 to 103 in 1980, 56 in 1990 and 48 last year. The current count of fatal accidents in metal and nonmetal mining is 18, compared with 23 at this time last year.
A similar pattern holds in coal mining. In 1970 fatal coal mine accidents stood at 260. They dropped to 133 in 1980, 66 in 1990, and 38 last year. So far this year, that figure stands at 9, compared with 16 at this time last year.
All this is a real cause for pride, though not for self-satisfaction. Altogether the mining community saw 86 deaths last year, and we all recognize that 86 is too many.
It's also true that in the past few years, our progress in reducing fatal accidents has shown signs of slowing and may, in fact, have leveled off.
In terms of fatal accidents, the metal and nonmetal mining industry actually enjoyed its safest year in 1994, with a record low count of 40 fatalities. The coal industry had its safest year in 1998, with a total of 29 deaths.
Clearly, there is more progress for us to make.
In addition, all of us in the mining community need to consider injuries that are not fatal. In my first few days on the job, an accident occurred in which five employees at a clay plant suffered serious burns. While no one was fatally injured, such an incident is devastating, and preventing such accidents in the future, as well as those not so serious, surely deserves our full and relentless attention.
Thankfully, most nonfatal accidents are not so severe, but all of them have a personal impact on miners, their families, and the mining community.
Included in this burden is an economic effect on the miners, their families, and the companies who employ them.
Preliminary figures show that last year, coal miners experienced more than 6,000 nonfatal, reportable injuries. Metal and nonmetal miners experienced more than 9,000 such injuries. About two-thirds of the reported injuries were severe enough to cause lost work time.
To put that in perspective, the nonfatal injury record for the mining industry in recent years is substantially better than in the past, but like fatal accidents has showed signs of leveling off. With some 15,000 individual incidents, it is obvious that there is significant room to improve.
Improving the health and safety of the mining industry also should improve the economic performance as well. Costs of every injury and illness include medical treatment, lost productivity, lost earnings, and downtime.
There is also the cost of conducting an investigation, administrative costs, increased workers' compensation costs including workers' compensation premiums, and often, damage to mine equipment and property.
There may also be a cost in terms of morale and job turnover, and other factors that one could consider. A recent study, on a preliminary basis, suggests that the cost of the average lost-workday injury in mining could be on the order of $10,000 to $30,000 per incident. Even that figure is suspect, and it does not include job-related illnesses. Good health and safety performance contributes to high productivity, lowers costs and so enhances job security.
It also is obvious that to achieve further progress will take more than just to keep doing what we are doing. For instance, who believes that inspections for compliance, by themselves, will create further progress? The fact that the progress has slowed indicates we also need to do something more.
Accordingly, we at MSHA are going to be setting specific accident reduction goals for reducing fatalities, injuries and illnesses annually throughout the mining industry.
I have suggested an annual reduction of 15 percent in the fatal injury incidence rate and a 50 percent reduction in the NFDL rate over the next four years. This, of course, will require the commitment and help of all who work in the mining business. It can be achieved, and with your help it will.
If, or I should say when, we achieve these goals we will have an average NFDL rate of 1.72 and will have reduced the number of fatalities by 45. Can you imagine how good that will feel, to know that we all contributed to that progress -- a feeling that many of us have for the progress to date?
But beyond that, we are going to be looking at our own health and safety performance and aggressively acting to reduce MSHA's own injury and illness rates. We have an obligation to ourselves, our families, our stakeholders and the taxpayer to perform in an exemplary manner. I have discussed this with senior staff, and efforts are under way to reduce our own rates of injury and illness incidence. (These figure are higher than the national average for mining. We would target a mine operator with these rates, so I am going to target ourselves to get these rates down.)
All this is even more critical in light of the recent increased demand for energy and minerals. Throughout the Eastern coalfields, mine operators are reporting increased demand and, in many cases, they are reporting shortages of qualified miners to meet that demand.
We also have an increased demand for stone, sand, gravel and other construction minerals in some parts of the country. Further, there is a real concern as to where the new miners are going to come from, with young people not wanting to work in mines and not enough experienced miners to draw from.
It is possible to gear up production without seeing a rise in accidents as well. We all need to be sure we do not allow our progress in safety and to be compromised in this process.
As I said, I come to this job without any "canned" answers to the question of how we can restore our earlier rate of safety progress. I have a few ideas, and I am going to listen closely over the next weeks to your ideas as well. It will take creative thinking on the part of all of us -- this much I know.
In that regard, we know that engineering and technical fixes will be part of the mix. Along with Secretary Chao, I am very much interested in new solutions to old problems that 21st century technology may be able to supply.
Clearly, we also need to address human actions. While many -- perhaps most -- accidents have multiple causes, human behavior is the biggest part of the equation.
By the way, when I talk about human behavior, that emphatically does not mean a focus on blame.
In conducting accident investigations, for instance, we need to pay attention to facts, not fault. What happened? What was the actual sequence of events? What causation factors were identified, and so on?
Ultimately, finding facts determines responsibility. But that is quite different from starting out with the idea of finding blame. An inappropriate focus on blame just teaches people to be apprehensive and defensive. A close, respectful attention to facts will teach us how we can prevent similar accidents in the future.
As useful as it is to learn from serious accidents, it is even better to learn to prevent accidents before they happen. That includes giving our attention to "near misses." Every year in the mining industry, and most likely every day, as in every area of life, we do see, and in many cases, experience incidents that might possibly have had very serious consequences. We need to take these occurrences seriously, treat them as warnings, and use them as opportunities to make changes before someone is harmed.
I can say that, as long as I am at MSHA, education and training will be very important to me. We certainly will be putting significant resources and attention into training miners -- and supervisors, and mine inspectors'for the mine workplace of the 21st Century.
Mine Safety and the General Public
And what about educating the mining community at large? The families of miners, the consumers who use mining products, which is virtually every member of modern American society.
Now more than ever is a golden opportunity to enlighten the citizens of this country to the significant contributions coal, metal and nonmetal mining make toward our daily comfort and progress.
We also have a duty to address the general public on the subject of mine hazards. Here I'm talking about the inherent dangers that exist at mine sites, not only for the mine worker who, fortunately, is trained to recognize hazards and minimize personal risk. I'm talking about individuals who have no idea what hazards they may be exposed to if they enter mine property unauthorized, unsupervised and untrained.
I'm referring to the group of teens who head out to the "ole swimming hole" the abandoned quarry outside of town on a hot summer afternoon. I can't tell you how many of these incidents end in tragedy.
Just two weeks ago, a father, his two daughters and a friend perished at an old gravel pit in Ohio. Then a 14-year-old boy drowned at an old strip mine pit in southern Illinois. In California, another young man died in similar circumstances at a swimming hole that had been the site of four additional drownings over the last two decades. In Massachusetts, a 25-year-old man fell 100 feet off the edge of an abandoned limestone quarry while hiking with friends.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture. I have seen these types of tragedies up close. In 1996, in my home state of Utah, an 18-year-old young man a spelunker fell 600 feet to his death at the Honorine Mine in Tooele County. Probably some of you have had personal experiences with these tragedies as well.
Over the past three years, more than 50 non-miners have died in accidents on active and abandoned mine property.
Even though MSHA's enforcement authority does not cover abandoned properties, these numbers are too disturbing to ignore.
Consequently, "Stay Out'stay Alive" was born. It's a national public awareness effort aimed at keeping kids and adults safe from harm on mine property.
More than 60 organizations around the country have joined this effort. In fact, at the annual meeting of the Holmes Safety Association earlier this month, I pledged my personal support, and we gained several more partners in the effort.
These are all senseless tragedies that, hopefully can be prevented with some education and enlightenment on the part of all of us. If you have not already, I would like to invite each of you to join us in this effort.
Many of you may have questions about health issues. Some of these concern regulations.
As you know, a new final rule concerning diesel particulate in coal mines recently took effect. The effective date for the diesel particulate rule for metal and nonmetal mines has been delayed until early July so that we can try to settle issues raised by pending litigation.
Meanwhile I am being briefed on other health issues, including regulations that have been "in the pipeline." I take our responsibility to protect miners' health as seriously as our responsibility for safety. Again, I am trying to bring as few preconceptions to these issues as possible and make thoughtful decisions that will really help to protect miners' health.
This might be an appropriate place to say a few words in general about regulations -- on safety or health. It's my intention that we will look at new regulations strictly in those cases where it is necessary and where regulations would make a real difference in advancing miner health and safety.
We will not implement new regulations for the sake of having regulations, or simply for the sake of saying we did something -- anything -- about a particular matter.
And in the case of new proposed regulations, we will also solicit and take into consideration input we receive from all sectors of the mining community in order to achieve the most viable regulations possible.
One thing we will not do is use policy as a substitute for needed regulatory action.
21st Century Issues
Safety and health in the workplace is one of Secretary Chao's most important priorities. It is part of the Department of Labor's annual performance plan. And she has made it clear that the safety and health of the workforce is personally important to her.
Just yesterday, the Department of Labor held a summit on the 21st Century Workforce in Washington, D.C. The summit drew thousands of participants and was quite a successful event. President Bush kicked the morning off with a rousing speech. Others weighed in on a number of topics, including:
- The skills gap within the workforce;
The demographic changes facing the workforce; and
The future of the workplace.
Listening to Our Stakeholders
To achieve both our short- and long-term goals it is most important that we in MSHA get in better touch with all of our stakeholders.
I am telling the managers and headquarters employees in MSHA that in my view, we need to get out into the field more and to reacquaint ourselves with our stakeholders.
We need to talk personally with miners, mine operators and managers, labor representatives, trainers, State mine safety and health officials and any others who can give us assistance or to whom we can provide assistance in the furtherance of our mission.
We need personally to see the mines and the operations for which we are responsible. If we fail to do this, we quickly fall out of touch. And when we are out of touch, it shows -- in what we say, in what we miss, and most importantly in our decisions and actions.
I want all our decisions to be made from a background of current, personal knowledge.
That is why I am making an effort over the next several weeks to travel to every MSHA district, to meet MSHA employees, and at the same time to visit mines and meet with as many people in the mining community as I can. I thank you for assisting me in that effort.
I also know that we need to call on the creativity of the whole mining community. I want to challenge everyone, including our MSHA employees, to "think outside of the box" and move beyond the norm. I feel strongly that all ideas are important. Every idea deserves thoughtful consideration and sometimes the most outlandish-seeming ideas, with a little adaptation, turn out to be brilliant.
I believe and will expect that every one of our stakeholders be treated fairly, equally, with respect, and with dignity. Likewise, I would hope that our personnel receive the same treatment. That includes respect for differences in perspective. I would expect representatives from labor organizations, management, manufacturers and other sectors to have different perspectives, yet still be able to talk together respectfully and reasonably and work things out.
I would expect representatives from the coal sector to have a different perspective from the metal and nonmetal sector. I will not expect the metal and nonmetal sector to accept being "coalized," as some people put it, or the coal sector to concern itself with issues that only affect metal and nonmetal mining.
And I expect that we will ask you to work with us on outreach programs to help involve everyone in the mining community in protecting miners' safety and health.
If I haven't already done so, in the next months I'll be asking for your best creative thoughts on how we can accomplish our mission even better than before. I hope that you will always feel free to give me your best advice, whatever that may be. If you have concerns or ideas that need to be brought to my attention, let me know.
I hope that all of us in the mining community will be able to feel a sense of excitement about what we can do to enhance our health and safety performance. I would hope also that at the end of each day, each of us will be able to look back knowing we have made a difference in improving safety and health for this Nation's miners and for their families.
With our best efforts and creativity, I know we can achieve outstanding progress in protecting miners' safety and health.
I would be happy to answer any questions.