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Remarks of Assistant Secretary of Labor Dave D. Lauriski
Mine Safety and Health Administration
2004 Georgia Mining Association Annual Convention
Hilton Head, SC
July 24, 2004

Good morning everyone. Thank you, Dewey, for that kind introduction.

I am honored to be here at the GMA's annual convention. This is quite an impressive gathering. I stand here today and recognize the knowledge and the skill that are in this audience that can further advance the cause of miner health and safety. As businesspeople and mine owners and operators, I know you have the knowledge, experience and expertise to make the mining industry a safe and healthy place to work and to help miners go home to their families at the end of each and every day.

I want to also express my gratitude to President George W. Bush, and my boss, Elaine L. Chao. They are solidly behind what we do, totally behind this industry because of its value and its importance to this nation and its economy.

As businesspeople, you are always looking to the future, and as you look toward the future of mining, so too does MSHA. My agency has a leading role in meeting the health and safety challenges that face the mining industry today - and addressing the coming challenges of tomorrow.

This is an exciting time right now in MSHA. We are moving to become a 21st century agency in a 21st century industry. And, like the mining industry - like each and every one of your companies - we are changing our thought processes, our internal processes, our approach to business to ensure we succeed.

But first, I'd like to go over with you some of the recent past. As you know, I came to MSHA from the mining industry. As a part of the industry, I recognized that the relationship between MSHA and the mining industry was not as productive as it could have or should have been. And so I came to MSHA three years ago with a mission: to change the relationship between mining and MSHA for the better and to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the agency. I intended - and I believe I have succeeded - in changing that relationship to one of cooperation rather than confrontation and improving the agency's efficiency and effectiveness. And I have worked hard to enlist you and the entire spectrum of the mining industry in the cause of improving the safety and health of those who work in this critical sector of the American economy.

I said three years ago when I took this job, "Judge me for what I do!" Well let me tell you, three years later this entire industry is the safest it has ever been! The healthiest it has ever been! The best performance it has ever had! Judge us for our results! Judge us on our performance! Today, more miners are home with their families in a healthy and safe condition than ever before, and you should be proud of what you have accomplished!

We all know that strategic planning makes the difference between success and failure. We've seen it time and time again, in our businesses, in our lives - and in government: Having a strategic plan is crucial to success.

And the process of strategic planning is crucial to its success. Putting together a workable plan - a good roadmap - that will successfully lead you to your goals requires a thorough, careful process that takes into account each factor that you may encounter along your way to success, as well as those with whom you will travel.

As a former businessman and a government executive, I recognized that MSHA needed a strategic plan to get where we wanted to go. I have found the planning process and the resulting plans to both be indispensable.

To reach the first goal of changing our relationship with the mining industry, we had to learn from our stakeholders what we were doing right, how and what we could improve, and how you thought we could do that.

Using what we learned during that stakeholder dialogue, and considering input from our own employees, we developed a strategic plan which set the agency in a new direction. Since that time we have moved from a confrontational, adversarial relationship with the mining community to one of cooperation and coordination.

  • We conduct mine inspections with focus on improving performance.

  • We make help from MSHA's training specialists and technical support personnel easily available to the mining industry.

  • We have increased the availability of and emphasis on compliance assistance, which means mine operators are helped to comply with the law before an incident rather than after.

  • We are moving toward an active culture of prevention, along with the mine industry. We are now actively preventing accidents rather than passively complying with the laws.

  • And we are following the mandate provided in the Mine Act as it was anticipated, using all the tools provided us - including enforcement, education and training, and technical support. This approach has reaped rewards, for both MSHA and the industry. We have seen record low fatality numbers in the mining industry as a whole in each of the last three years. Since 2000, fatalities in the industry are down 34 percent and injuries more than 25 percent. For the metal and non-metal sector of mining, fatalities are down 45 percent and injuries down 29 percent over the same time frame. That is a great job - but can we do more? Absolutely.

    We're still not at zero, our ultimate goal. Too many miners are still injured on the job. Too many miners still die on the job. Our performance is still short of our shared vision: sustained zero fatalities and injuries, and the end of occupational illness. We still have work to do, and we must do it together.

    As MSHA moves into the future as a partner with the mining industry, we must change our internal culture to institutionalize the processes that have led to this success. We clearly have something that's working now, but we want it to work better. We want it to take us where we need to go - to zero, with you.

    And so right now we are building our next five-year strategic plan - a plan that will institutionalize the methods and processes that have brought us success in a way that will allow us to move toward continued progress. We must continue our progress - it is essential for the continued success of the mining industry.

    Our strategic plan will give us consistent processes that focus our work on our common goals. It will allow us to become flexible and efficient - which will directly benefit the mining industry. We will constantly evaluate our progress, making sure that we are headed in the right direction along the right roads - and touching the right people along the way. And as we are better able to define our goals and objectives, and refine the processes by which we achieve them, we become more efficient at our work, you benefit, too. A more efficient MSHA is a plus for miners and the mining industry.

    As you all know, change is hard, especially in a large organization. And MSHA is no different in that respect than any of your companies. But we are breaking down barriers to change in our organization and we are boldly advancing into the future.

  • We are developing new leaders for this agency, and that's part of our strategic planning process.

  • We have to be willing to educate and train our workforce in the highest standards that we possibly can for quality performance.

  • We are making sure that once and for all we become ONE MSHA, that we work toward common goals, common purposes and not at cross-purposes.

  • We have to become flexible and efficient.

  • We have to upgrade our processes. We must look at what can get us the biggest return on investment. We must look at where we need to focus our efforts and our resources.

  • We must not focus our regulatory attention on those who do it right, but those who do it wrong.

  • We have to create the right set of measures that we can monitor to move us forward.

  • We have to raise the bar for our own employees, and we have to invest, most importantly, in our staff and in our training.

  • And then we finally need to foster industry-wide cooperation to achieve excellence in health and safety performance.

    We have used a very simple method thus far - a bottom-up approach to mold this process and to gain employee acceptance, enthusiasm and buy-in. We've offered every employee in MSHA an opportunity to get on our web site and participate in the strategic planning process, to help us fully embrace our mission, our vision and our values.

    And our employees showed us they have a clear focus on what we are and what we will become. They told us:

    Our mission is to create health and safety professionals who are dedicated to sending miners home healthy and safe at the end of every shift.

    Our vision as an agency is to be partners in leading to zero fatalities in this industry and an end to occupational illness.

    Our core values as an Agency are commitment, mutual respect, integrity and efficiency. It was the employees of this Agency who defined our mission, vision and core values, and it will be the employees of the agency who carry them out - employees of whom I am very proud!

    We have to develop the workforce of tomorrow, and that's the plan that we're working on now. Fifty percent of our employees are going to be eligible to leave this Agency in the next five years - not an uncommon situation in this industry or in the government. What is more troublesome is that our new hires today are an average of forty-seven years old! We have to look to the future and consider who will replace us tomorrow. We need to find a new generation of employees to take our place. We have great opportunities to build the future MSHA, and I believe we will succeed.

    And while we have been planning our moves into the future, we have also been making progress in the present. Let me quickly touch on some of the issues we have been dealing with and improving upon.

    Regulations: Three years ago, we streamlined our regulatory agenda. We had twenty-six agenda items on the books. We streamlined them down to eleven. Many of these agenda items (not regulations) have been on the books for years, some going as far back as 1983 but never being moved upon. So we took a look at what was important to the mining community and to the miners and we put together an agenda that adds value to mine safety and health.

    And we've moved some regulations that have been languishing in the bureaucratic process, things we should have been resolved many years ago. We have been criticized for streamlining this process, but I want you to judge us by our successes. Judge this community by its successes. We shouldn't be judged by politicizing miner health and safety or promoting a regulatory agenda. But unfortunately that still happens.

    We're collaborating with other organizations more than we've ever been, particularly with academia. Just a few months ago, for example, we gave a grant of nearly $184,000 to Georgia to provide mine safety and health training and education to Georgia's miners.

    But one of the most important and innovative things that I think we've done in the past year is developing industry alliances that promote health and safety. The National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association was the first alliance established. Eighty-six percent of their members today have signed a safety pledge to adopt the goals of reducing injury, illness and death in the Nation's mines by the levels that we established as an Agency, and they're hitting the mark. Just two months ago we had the honor of going to the Industrial Minerals Association and recognizing their members for their performance on the goals that this Agency had set. We have an alliance with the International Union of Operating Engineers that I'm so very proud of because not only does it promote health and safety for miners, but it promotes protection for this country. And just last Sunday I signed an alliance with the Ironworkers Union that promotes safety and health for ironworkers who work at surface and underground mine sites around the country. We want to join hands with like-minded organizations, pool our expertise and experience, and work with each other instead of at each other to achieve our common goals of sending safe, healthy workers home at the end of every shift.

    We have all achieved so much together, MSHA and the industry. And we want to promote that success. We have an opportunity today - you have an opportunity today - to promote and expand the progress the mining industry has achieved.

    One thing we need to change is some views and misconceptions about the mining industry. When you talk to people and you tell them what you do for a living, I know their initial and immediate reaction is, "Oh my, how dangerous that is!" And how wrong they are! How wrong they are, but the public doesn't know that. Twenty-five years ago, it was true - how dangerous this was! Not today! How safe we are! How healthy we are as an industry! And our mines are safe for those who work there! That's a message that you have an opportunity to tell this community and to tell the public. We must change the misconceptions about this industry and that will enable us to move forward.

    Changing the public's perception about the mining industry will help us do something that I think is very important, something that I have promoted since day one. I mentioned it earlier, and it is central to my belief in what we can accomplish as an industry. We must change our culture from a culture of reacting to problems to a culture of prevention. That's what MSHA is about. We need to be on the front side of issues, not on the back side. Frankly, the culture is changing today throughout this industry. We need to let the public know about this change. This is an industry to be proud of. You know that a miner today in this country earns an average yearly wage that is $12,500 more than earned by the average worker. This is because our workers are highly skilled, because they are professionals, and yes, because they work in an inherently hazardous environment that we control.

    We can be proud of the culture change. We want to continue it. We don't want to become an industry that takes a back seat to anybody - especially in health and safety. We want to make sure to take advantage of our opportunities. As leaders, your contributions in this process are critical if we're to move forward and create a culture of prevention. We can do so by instilling the values of health and safety along the entire spectrum of the mining community. That can and should start at the top - with you - industry leaders.

    And you are in an ideal position to lead that change. As you know, in the metal and nonmetal sector we're seeing a demand never seen before in construction, in housing, in commercial construction, and in road building. All of these issues are putting demands on the mining industry. But the demand is helping our economy, an economy that is being driven by this President's tax packages and by his desire to see this nation succeed. And today, we are succeeding so very well.

    Let me give you an example with which I'm sure you're familiar: Crushed stone has grown eight percent between the end of 2002 and 2003. Sand and gravel is growing at a similar rate because of our robust economy. The end result of all this is good, but it is also of some concern. It is good for miners. It's good for mines. It's good for our country and it's good for the economy, but we have to be concerned about the impact of this rapid growth on the health and safety of our miners. We have to be sure that we're focused. We have to be sure that our miners don't lose opportunities to be trained. We have to be sure that we're putting miners in positions that they are capable of handling in a healthy and safe manner. We cannot afford to take a step back because of this robust market. Be vigilant in what you do. Don't take a step backwards.

    And you know we still have far to go. We have had a recent spike in fatalities over the past two months in both coal and metal and non-metal. I'm sorry to say that the most recent fatality for metal and non-metal was in Georgia. It is the only fatality for Georgia so far this year. Although Georgia is consistently at the low end of the scale with few or no fatalities and the second-lowest incident rate in the nation for CY2003 (2.27), one fatality is still too many. With 204 active mines and an average of 7,200 employees in the Georgia mining industry, you're doing well, but one fatality is still too many. One incident is still too many. I know you're working hard to bring your numbers down, I know you're striving to do better - and MSHA wants to help you do better. I challenge you to get to zero - we are almost there.

    And I believe we can get there - to zero - by changing our values in the mining industry. We must instill in all that we do the fact that health and safety are values in our lives and in our business plans. They are every bit as important as the other components. And when we instill health and safety as values in this community, we create the culture of prevention. They go hand-in-hand.

    A culture of prevention makes health and safety values not just a priority. Values are the bedrock of behavior - values are the foundation upon which cultures are built. Holding safety as a value means that the expectation of safe operation does not change, regardless of the fashion of the time or the expediency of the moment. Telling the truth is a value; getting out of trouble is a priority. Living up to your values may conflict with your priorities - and values must prevail. Just as democracy and freedom are enduring values in American culture, safety should and must become an enduring value in the mining culture.

    I want to tell you about an article that appeared in Coal Age Magazine a few months ago. Some of you may not have seen it, but it is very telling. It was an editorial about mining's performance in the coal sector. Steve Friscor said, "You know, zero is in sight in this industry. It is there for the taking. Wouldn't it be something if a billion tons of coal were produced and not one miner loses their life."

    Wouldn't it be something if we had billions of tons of kaolin, granite, sand, gravel, copper, gold, and silver - all of the commodities and nobody loses their life. We're very close. Together we can make this happen. I thought that was an extremely poignant statement for a magazine to make because we're that close. We are that close and you are part of that. We are that close, and with your leadership, with your attention, we can make it. Talking about zero-who would have thought this?

    Sometimes in this job I find that I sit on a different side of the fence from you, the industry. Sometimes we have disagreements. Some in the industry may not agree on the processes that the agency takes, or the agency may not agree with the processes that industry takes. But over the past three years I've spent in this job, I have seen that we do, indeed, all share a common vision. That vision is the same regardless of what office we go to every day. Our vision is that every miner in this country goes home to his or her family at the end of every workday in a healthy and safe condition. That is our common hope, our common vision, our common goal.

    I have shared with you MSHA's vision about how to get there - and I know its your vision too. We have shown time and again that we can work together to achieve our goals. We are well on our way to achieving our goal of zero. Some day - I believe it will be soon - we'll share in the triumph of our vision becoming a reality. Thank you for this great opportunity. God bless America and God bless America's miners.