Skip to content
Keynote Address
Dave D. Lauriski
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health
Joint Mine Safety and Health Conference
South Central District
New Orleans, Louisiana
March 11, 2003


Introduction and acknowledgments

It is a tremendous pleasure to be here today. I understand that the South Central district held its first Joint Mine Safety and Health Conference some 20 years ago. This annual event has become an example of an outstanding partnership institution, with a 40-member steering committee and participants representing industry, labor, MSHA, vendors and suppliers, academia, and many others in the mining community.

I'm aware that the members of this committee have invested a tremendous amount of work in this event and have participated in planning meetings throughout the past year. The University of Texas played a key role in organizing the event, and there has been tremendous participation from mining companies -- for instance, I understand that TXI has some 30 people in attendance this year. I'd also like to acknowledge Judy Tate, of MSHA's Educational Field Services organization and chair of the steering committee. All of you have put together an excellent program for this year's conference. There could be no better example of working together so that we can send more miners home safe and healthy every day.

The safety record

The American mining industry has just achieved its two safest years on record. After several years of relative stagnation, in 2001 the number of mine fatalities dropped to 72, which was the lowest figure ever. Then last year, that figure came down by 5, to a new low record of 67.

Injuries also are on the decline. Reported mining injuries declined from about 16,000 in the year 2000 to fewer than 15,000 in 2001 - and preliminary figures indicate, to about 13,000 last year.

Our vision, of course, is zero fatalities and zero injuries. No other goal is acceptable. And the mining industry clearly is headed in the right direction. You should be proud. And I know you are as determined as we are in MSHA, to keep up the momentum.

The Nation's coal industry set a new low record last year with 27 fatalities, down from 42 the year before. The metal and nonmetal mining sector matched its second lowest fatality total on record, 40.

The area covered by the South Central district is, of course, unique. There are about 30,000 miners working in this area. The metal and nonmetal mining industry accounts for about 95 percent of all operations in this area. Out of more than 1,800 mines, some 1,700 are open pit operations. The largest industries are sand and gravel, accounting for 43 percent of all operations, and crushed and broken limestone, with 26 percent of the operations. In this area are about 750 small mines - that is, mines with 5 or fewer miners. And of course, a significant number of miners are Spanish-speaking. The mining industry in this area has its own profile and its unique challenges.

Last year, coal mining fatalities in the South Central area declined from to 1, from 2 in 2001, which is progress in the right direction.

When we turn to the safety record of the South Central District metal and nonmetal mines, we have to face the fact that the fatality record last year was disappointing.

In the metal and nonmetal mining industry, from one fatality in the year 2001, the number of fatal injuries increased last year to 9. With two fatal injuries already this year, we know that there is work to be done.

Of the fatalities last year, one was an employee of an independent contractor; the other eight were all operator employees. This year there has been one operator fatality and one contractor fatality.

So should the recent fatality record concern us? Yes. Should we be discouraged? Absolutely not. We know that it is possible to do better. Of one thing I am certain: with your active participation, we can continue to send more miners home to their families than we ever have. And as a major sector of the industry, you have the opportunity to lead other mines in this country on the road to still greater improvements in health and safety performance.

At the same time, there is more to the picture. Nonfatal injuries are declining. Preliminary figures indicate, for example, that nonfatal lost-day injuries in the South Central district dropped from about 950 in 2000 to about 925 in 2001 and about 790 last year, which is good progress.

Some of the nation's leaders in mine safety also call the South Central District home.

The Briggs Plant mine, located in the city of Victoria, Texas, owned and operated by the Fordyce company, has been the recipient of the Sentinels of Safety Award in the Dredge category a total of four times in the last six years. In 2001, they worked almost 229,000 employee-hours without a lost-time injury.

Chris Aleman, Safety Director for the Fordyce company, is in the audience today (Chris, please stand up so we can recognize you.)

Chris has been a leading force in this success every step of the way and truly exemplifies one who understands the benefits of making Safety a Value. He started with the company as a laborer and worked his way up through various positions. In 1984, Chris was promoted to director of safety over all the Fordyce operations. He has since worked diligently every single day to improve the ongoing safety and health process at the plants he oversees.

Another operation with outstanding safety performance is Hanson Aggregates South Central, Arena Plant, Altair, Texas, last year's winner in the Bank or Pit group. The safety director is Dave Pfile, who I believe is also here -- Dave, would you stand up?

Over the years, Dave has worked exceptionally closely with the MSHA's South Central District, taking a proactive approach that has really paid off in preventing injuries. Last year the Arena operation totaled more than 132,000 employee-hours without a lost-time injury.

Earning the Sentinels of Safety Award is in no way a small accomplishment, for it requires that all employees make the commitment that safety is a value each and every day. I bet the folks at these operations could tell us success story after success story beyond the winning of awards because of their dedication to safe work.

The Briggs and Arena operations are real success stories and demonstrate that when management takes a pro-active approach and incorporates safety and health in their business plan, good things happen. I congratulate Chris and Dave and everyone at their operations for their accomplishments in miners' safety and health.

Extraordinarily, the South Central District also has eight runners-up in the Sentinels of Safety Competition.

(By the way, when I speak of runners-up, I mean operations that finished in the top five.)

All of the winners and runners up in the Sentinels of Safety awards were free from lost-time injuries for a full year. That's a given. They also logged impressive numbers of working hours. I congratulate all the winners and runners up - the best of the best - who will be honored at tomorrow's luncheon.

MSHA recent achievements:

In 2002, you should have seen, and from my conversations throughout the mining industry I believe most have you have now seen -- significant changes in the way we do business in MSHA.

We have made these changes with the full support of Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao who takes a personal interest in the health and safety of miners and of all American workers. Secretary Chao has established a 21st Century Workforce Initiative, whose goal is to ensure that all American workers have as fulfilling and financially rewarding a career as they aspire to have, and to make sure that no worker gets left behind in the limitless potential of the dynamic, global economy of this new millennium. She is very involved and supportive of mine safety and health.

A critical element in MSHA's management plans has been and will continue to be the Triangle of Success. That consists of enforcement, education and training, and technical assistance -- three elements, which should be equal in importance. As I have said over and over -- that does not mean less enforcement. It means a balanced emphasis on enforcement, education and training, and technical assistance, all three of which are tools that the law gives us to influence safety and health in the mining industry.

I use that word "influence" for a specific reason.

MSHA is not there to manage your health and safety operation, but rather we should be there to serve as a catalyst. The control is in your hands, as it should be. What we can do is exert influence. We can coach and encourage. We do not control.

With that mission in mind, we have been methodically working through a management plan that we developed with input from you and other stakeholders. To mention only some highlights:

We strengthened our emphasis on compliance assistance throughout the agency. We have strengthened information outreach. We signed the first Alliance agreement in the mining industry.

In a significant milestone last month, MSHA and the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association signed an innovative and far-reaching agreement to promote the health and safety of miners in the stone, sand and gravel industries. For the next two years, the agreement will use our collective expertise to help foster a culture of prevention by sharing best practices and technical knowledge.

For the first time MSHA and an industry association have jointly agreed to cooperate in achieving common mine safety and health performance goals with objective performance metrics. This is precedent-setting.

To achieve the spirit of the agreement, we will work together to provide NSSGA members with information, education and training, and technical assistance to help them prevent injuries and illnesses and protect miners' safety and health. We also will expand outreach and communications on mine safety and health matters.

Under the agreement MSHA and NSSGA also will work together to achieve education and training goals. We will develop training and education programs on reducing and preventing mine hazards. We will develop and share best practices and effective approaches to improve mine safety and health.

In the area of technical assistance, we will conduct evaluations of applied engineering to improve mine safety and health. We also will conduct analyses to identify potentially hazardous health and safety conditions to which the Alliance should direct particular attention and resources.

Outreach, communication and national dialogue will be a critical aspect of our common effort. We plan to develop and disseminate information on mine safety and health at conferences, events, or through media including links from MSHA's and NSSGA's Web sites. MSHA and NSSGA leaders will both work to raise others' awareness of and demonstrate their own commitment to mine safety and health.

We are jointly committing to share information on best practices and effective approaches with others in the mining industry through individual or joint outreach and through MSHA- or NSSGA-developed training programs and materials. We intend to perform mine safety and health case studies and publicize their results through print or electronic media, promotion at conferences, or other means of outreach.

We plan to place special emphasis on cooperatively working with state aggregate associations in helping them improve the health and safety working conditions for their members' employees.

I am especially pleased and proud that we have reached this agreement because it is the first of its kind in the mining industry. We hope this will be only the first of many such agreements.

We established a small mines safety and health office.

We started this new office last year with staff borrowed from various branches of MSHA. Many of you probably know Kevin Burns, who was selected to direct this effort. The proposed FY 2004 budget will establish it as a formal and lasting entity.

The new office will address the specialized needs of the approximately 6,500 small mines around the country.

For the last several years, the fatal injury incidence rate at small mining operations has been more than double the rate for larger mines. If we are going to move forward in this industry, we have to enlist these small mines. Accordingly, we will provide assistance to help small mine operators improve their safety and health efforts and embrace safety and health as a value.

The Small Mines Safety and Health Office provides on-site compliance assistance to small mine operators throughout the country in the several ways. The small mine office also is moving to: Initial visits to small mines already are getting a positive response from many quarters. One small mine operator wrote to us: "I was very relieved to have some clear help in MSHA-related issues . . . . it is a good program to bring the common sense back into focus'and really aids in streamlining our duties."

A small Western operator wrote this about the starter kit that the small mine office provided to him: "It has cleared up a lot of confusionMy paper time has been reduced, also my filing system is smaller. I can now keep up and have a better understanding of what I'm doing and when to do it."

And another wrote, "We are a family-owned corporation that includes nine or 10 small mines ranging from 2 to 15 people . . . . I would love to put one [of these binders] in the hands of each of our foremen."

This kind of response tells us that the small mine office is already making a difference on the front line where it counts the most. But the true measure will be how many more miners go home to their families at the end of every work shift.

Learning from incidents

In 2002 we had the rescue of nine miners from the flooded Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania, an event that focused the attention and recognition of the whole nation, and indeed the whole world, for all that is best in the American mining industry. As a result of this incident, we have focused on ways to better identify the location of old workings that can create a hazard for miners. We held a technical symposium that identified some promising new technologies that are being further explored. Quecreek also provided an experience of success like no other. American miners became heroes. We need to remember that, and look for more opportunities to recognize our success in mine safety, in all mining sectors.

We took steps to make MSHA a better-managed agency. The New MSHA
  • To make compliance assistance a part of every inspection:

      -- MSHA personnel analyze and use incidence rate and violation history data to identify trends being experienced at each mine property. They share the findings during pre-inspection conferences to serve as a guide and road map during the inspection process.

      -- Special focus is given on hazard recognition and work practices throughout each work area visited.

      -- In conducting compliance assistance activities during each mine visit, inspection personnel place emphasis on current issues responsible for accidents and fatalities.

      -- Specialists do simple root cause analyses on compliance problems and share them with all mine employees.

      -- Emphasis is placed on conducting thorough and meaningful Close-out Conferences with the mine operator and Miners' Representative to spell out the features and benefits of the inspection party's efforts.
  • MSHA has long had excellent working relationships with States in the South Central districts. For example, now that the Federal budget has been finalized, MSHA has made its State grant awards for fiscal year 2003 to Arkansas Department of Labor ($95,543), the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations ($193,785), and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology ($138,633), and the Utah Labor Commission ($165,572). We are working with additional States to determine their grant funding for this fiscal year.
  • Looking ahead

    Let me mention some items for the future that may be of particular interest to you.

    1. MSHA's budget. MSHA's budget for FY 2003 provided more personnel to give attention to the growing metal and nonmetal mine sector. The Omnibus bill provides additional funds as well -- $10 million for research on old mine workings and digitizing maps, $3 million for impoundment research, and $6.5 million for the coal program.

    For FY 2004, President Bush has requested an increase of $12.5 million for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. In a tight budget year, that's a signal of the importance placed on the well-being of American miners. The proposed 2004 budget would add 20 more positions focused on metal and nonmetal mining and 35 for coal mine safety and health. It also requests $2.4 million and 21 positions for the Office of Small Mines Safety and Health, which I have described, within the Educational Policy and Development program.

    2. Continuing improvements in compliance assistance. For instance, you can expect to see more updated and innovative training materials and more services added to the web site. Our web site is undergoing continued redesign based upon comments we receive from users. We are also looking at adopting a ListServ function so that anyone can sign up to receive regular e-mail updates on topics of interest.

    3. Review of inspection procedures. We're looking at ways to efficiently use our time during mine visits to get even more value and results. We want to focus our efforts at mines or areas of mines where we can effect the best return on our investment.

    4. Improved training for MSHA personnel. Wrapup: A culture of prevention

    There is a key phrase in the agreement that MSHA recently signed with the NSSGA that says, "We need a culture of prevention."

    We need to make safety a value - a central thing, a part of us, deeply held, like our patriotism, like our caring for our families, like the value we put on a day's work for a day's pay.

    We need to maintain the attitude that no incident is "routine" -- every incident, whether or not it results in a serious injury -- is a message from which we can learn.

    Moreover, we need to learn from success, not just from our failures -our successes like the Sentinels of Safety winners we honor every year, or the rescue of the nine miners from the Quecreek Mine.

    They have shown what can be done with teamwork, commitment, determination - to achieve our goal - to send every miner home safe and healthy at the end of every working day.

    Keep up the good work. The momentum is truly behind us. Let's build on it.

    Thank you. I'll be pleased to answer any questions you may have.