Remarks of Dave D. Lauriski
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health
2002 Joint National Meeting of the Joseph A. Holmes Safety Association,
National Association of State Mine Inspection Agencies, and
the Mine Safety Institute of America
Virginia Beach, Virginia
June 6, 2002
Good evening, everyone, and thank you, Pat, for that introduction. I'd like to extend my thanks and appreciation to Doyle Fink, the outgoing president of the Joseph A. Holmes Safety Association, as well as to Harry Tuggle, to whom that baton has been passed.
I hope you've had an enjoyable, relaxing and productive week here in Virginia Beach.
I always enjoy the types of gatherings that bring together mining people from around the country to discuss mine safety and health issues.
Throughout the week, there have been numerous opportunities for you and your colleagues to learn about the latest training techniques and methods for the mining industry, effective risk management programs, compliance issues, mine emergency preparedness, and a number of other topics.
I hope you have taken full advantage of all of these sessions.
I applaud the Joseph A. Holmes Safety Association, the National Association of State Mine Inspection Agencies, and the Mine Safety Institute of America for all their work in organizing this week's program.
And special thanks to Virginia's Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy for everything they did to make this conference a success.
Since 1916, the members of the Joseph A. Holmes Safety Association have striven to prevent fatalities and injuries and to improve health and safety among officials and employees in all phases of mining.
We have members representing labor, government mining companies and suppliers. In spite of our diversity, our mission is the same.
I am pleased to note that in recent years, the Joseph A. Holmes Safety Association has grown substantially by branching out beyond traditional underground coal mine membership.
Today, there are more surface coal and metal/nonmetal mining members than ever before.
What better communicator's medium than this association to carry forward the message of mine health and safety.
Awards are an important component of the Association, and in a few moments I will talk about some of the honors we are bestowing this evening upon several individuals who demonstrated great courage in some very risky situations.
It's hard to believe that I've been directing the Mine Safety and Health Administration for over a year now. It's been an exhilarating and challenging 13 months, I can assure you.
As many of you know, I came to MSHA from a career spanning three decades in the mining industry as a safety and health professional and as a manager.
I say, with all sincerity, it has been a great privilege to serve in this post under President George W. Bush.
It's equally a pleasure to work with Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Labor and my boss. She has been extremely supportive of our activities for improving miner safety and health.
I look forward to continuing my service under these two great leaders.
As you well know, the U.S. mining industry has made outstanding progress in safety and health over the decades.
Last year, the toll of mining deaths in this country was the lowest ever recorded.
This year, however, we've experienced some setbacks.
Fatal accidents in mines are up 28 deaths nationwide, compared with 21 on this date a year ago. (as of 6/3/02)
MSHA has worked extremely hard to bring these numbers down. For many years, we've been an agency centered primarily on enforcement.
But enforcement can't and shouldn't remain the centerpiece around which all other activities revolve.
What we need is not less enforcement, but a healthy balance between enforcement, education and training, technical support, and compliance assistance.
I believe we're well on the road to achieving this balance. And I believe that there is strong support throughout the mining industry for striking such a balance.
As always, I welcome any comments, suggestions and constructive criticism you may wish to impart.
By working with each other, we can achieve the goals we all hope to attain the healthiest, safest, fairest workplaces for our nation's miners.
Tonight is the part of the program I've really looked forward to. The time when we recognize those individuals who performed some incredibly selfless acts of courage and heroism.
The word heroism seems to get tossed around quite casually these days.
It's not uncommon to hear a professional sports figure called a hero for bagging a difficult hole-in-one, or breaking a long-held home-run record, or even bringing home the gold in an Olympic event.
Sometimes I wonder if we haven't diluted the true meaning of this word. Following the events of September 11, many of us have had to rethink exactly what defines a hero.
It's people traversing a seemingly endless and smoky stairwell in a burning tower, aiding friends and strangers to safety.
It's average citizens overtaking a group of hijackers bent on destroying American landmarks that stand for freedom and democracy.
It's a group of Alabama coal miners who ignore the fiery explosion that rocks an underground mine in order to rescue a colleague trapped beneath the rubble.
It's men like .... Larry Fithian, Terry Wolfgang, Troy Wolfgang, Mike Day, Jesse Paul Vires, Johnny Hargrove, Andy Anderson, Vaughn Dennis, Gregg Pellham, Terry McFadden, and Bruce May..In January 1999, Larry Fithian, an employee with the Nevada Cement Company, was traveling on Interstate 80 outside of Lovelock, Nevada, when he came upon an overturned van on fire.
Along with two other motorists, Larry successfully extinguished the fire.
But while removing debris from the highway so that emergency vehicles could get through, he noticed that the van was once again in flames. At that point, none of the fire extinguishers was available.
Giving little thought to his own safety, Larry rushed to the upended car to rescue the trapped passenger inside. He wrestled with the jammed car door for several minutes.
Finally he succeeded in getting it open, retrieving the passenger, and moving him safely out of harm's way.
In a matter of minutes, the van was totally engulfed in flames.
On a Saturday last December, just before dawn, Pennsylvania's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety received an emergency call that someone had fallen down an abandoned mine shaft in Northumberland County.
Underground mine inspectors and brothers Terry and Troy Wolfgang were called to the scene.
They rappelled 70 feet down into the shaft to secure the area and locate the victim, who, at this point, had been missing for three hours.
There was great concern about the potentially dangerous levels of gas, since underground mine fires were burning as close as 500 feet from the shaft.
Eventually, the Wolfgang brothers made voice contact with the victim, who was semi-conscious at 100 feet into the sloping mine workings. He hung on some old wood timbers left over from the days of active mining, back in the 60s.
Two more rescuers were lowered into the shaft to provide support for Terry and Troy as they attempted to attach a harness to the victim.
On the surface, 25 men held onto the other end of the rope, waiting for the signal to begin pulling him up.
Personnel from Deep Mine Safety administered first aid, then placed the victim in a stokes basket and hoisted him to the surface. He was re-checked for injuries, administered an IV, and transported to the hospital.
Members of the Coal Township Fire and Rescue team, mine rescue/first aid instructor Kenneth Witmer, and mine inspector Glenn Bensinger also contributed greatly to the successful rescue.
On September 11, far from the horrific scene in Lower Manhattan, another emergency situation was playing out in Kentucky, at Pine Branch Coal Sales, Inc's #20 Strip Mine.
At around 11:45 a.m., a rock fell from a high wall and struck a mine mechanic.
The impact severely fractured his left leg in several places.
His right leg was not so lucky; it was all but amputated below the knee, barely hanging on by a small piece of tissue.
Mike Day and Jesse Paul Viers, both on their lunch break, immediately rushed to assist the injured miner. Removing their shirts, they used one as a tourniquet and the other was used to apply direct pressure to the wound.
Once the bleeding was under control, they moved the injured miner to a safer area.
If not for the quick thinking and actions of Mike Day and Jesse Paul Viers, it is extremely doubtful their colleague would have survived his injury.
Just a few days shy of Christmas 2001, three men were operating a dragline at TXU Mining Company's Beckville Mine when one of the workers dropped to the ground, held his head and was unable to speak.
Andy Anderson, Vaughn Dennis and Johnny Hargrove, suspecting their colleague had had a stroke, immediately went into action.
Johnny sent out an alert for an ambulance.
All three strapped the ailing miner in a wire basket and proceeded to remove him from the dragline. Electrician Bruce May also lent a hand.
The men loaded the victim into the back of a pick-up truck and covered him to keep him warm, as it was an extremely cold night.
Since the ambulance had not yet arrived, they decided to drive to the mine entrance to save valuable time.
The victim soon regained consciousness and began talking to his friends. At that point, the EMS arrived and determined that he had had not a stroke, but a heart attack.
The emergency team spent about 20 minutes working to stabilize their patient. Soon after, he was transported to a hospital in Longview, Texas.
It turned out that there was a 100 percent blockage in the main artery around the heart, and two other arteries were almost totally blocked as well.
Both the hospital trauma nurse and the cardiologist on staff agreed that a life was saved because of the quick response of these men.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer."
To Larry, Terry, Troy, Mike, Jesse, Johnny, Andy, Vaughn, Gregg, Terry and Bruce, we say, thank you, for those extra, critical minutes you took to ensure the safety and welfare of a fellow human being.
And for making your own safety a highly regarded value.
This is something I've tried to emphasize repeatedly during my 13 months with the Agency.
That we make a habit of always doing the safe thing; a habit so ingrained that safety has become a value for us, albeit, an automatic one.
We already hold that value dear in our personal lives with our families, especially with our children.
We always fasten their safety belt without thinking each time we get behind the wheel of a car.
We keep dangerous household items out of reach of young children.
There are myriad ways we ensure the safety of our loved ones.
On the job, safety as a value is just as critical. It affects all levels of an organization, from top management on down.
A smooth, accident-free work process enhances efficiency, productivity and, ultimately, profits.
And even though mining injuries and fatalities have been creeping upwards, I am by no means discouraged.
The elements to get to the next level in safety and health are right in this room.
I thank you for your past safety and health efforts. I ask that you continue these efforts and constantly strive for new ways to improve safety and health in our nation's mines.
I want to enlist your help in demonstrating safety and health as a value throughout each of your companies and in the industry as a whole.
I hope you will tell others about your successes and share your methods. And I hope you will tell us at MSHA as well. We want to learn from you.
I want to ask that all of you become examples and a touchstone for others in showing what it takes, and what is gained, by making safety a value every hour of every day.
With success we can look forward to lives saved, injuries prevented, a healthier workforce and a healthier mining industry.
Success in bringing about this change will require everyone's commitment and, most importantly, our performance.
It's been a pleasure being here this week. Thank you for your attention this evening, and God Bless America.