Remarks of Assistant Secretary of Labor Richard E. Stickler
Mine Safety and Health Administration
2006 National Safety Congress
San Diego, CA
November 6, 2006
Good afternoon and thank you for caring enough about safety and health to be here today. Thank you, Dan, for that nice introduction. I'm very happy to be here with so many safety and health professionals - and with so many people interested in mine safety and health.
I'm honored to share this stage with the heads of MSHA's sister agencies - Ed Foulke of OSHA and John Howard of NIOSH. I can't think of better company to keep than these two gentlemen!
This is my first National Safety Congress, and I'm looking forward to learning a lot - and making new friends.
There is a tremendous wealth of safety and health expertise here at this conference, and I want to take advantage of every opportunity I can to make the most of it.
This is also my first speech as the new Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health and I want to say how proud I am that I have been given this opportunity to join the MSHA team and make a positive difference in the safety and health of miners.
Over my 40-year career in the mining industry, I have witnessed first-hand the dramatic improvement in mine safety and health due in part to the dedicated service of the mine safety and health professionals at MSHA, and I am honored to join the MSHA team.
I know I am taking on the leadership role at MSHA at a tough time for the agency. 2006 has been a difficult year for the mining community and for MSHA.
There have been 45 fatalities so far this year in our nation's coal mines, including the tragedies in West Virginia and Kentucky, and 23 fatal accidents in our nation's metal and nonmetal mines. That is 68 too many miners who lost their lives this year.
This high number of fatal accidents in America's mining industry is, quite simply, unacceptable. It is something that we can - and we must - change.
I am committed to reversing this year's tragic upward trend and to resuming our continuous progress in protecting miners' lives.
I have seen first-hand what the mining community can accomplish by working together, and I am looking forward to once again seeing record-low fatalities among America's miners.
I want to take some time to lay out my priorities for you. Of course, the number one priority is to protect the health and safety of America's miners.
The goal of everyone in the mining community must be to achieve zero injuries, zero fatalities and an end to occupational illness in this nation's mining industry.
Everything I will do at MSHA will be in service of that ultimate goal.
In the near term, I will be focusing my attention on four priorities:
First, completing the investigations of the tragic accidents at Sago, Aracoma and Darby mines that occurred this year and issuing the reports of our findings.
These reports will be critical for us to use in developing, implementing and monitoring action plans that will help us prevent accidents like these from occurring in the future.
My second priority is implementing the improved safety protections and new enforcement provisions of the MINER Act.
This Act will enhance safety and health in our mines. It is a landmark piece of legislation - the most significant since the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act was passed in 1977.
The third priority I am focusing on for the near term is to press ahead with our recruitment, training and deployment of 170 coal mine inspectors mandated by Congress.
We have active recruitment drives continuing around the country, and have hired additional staff at our Mine Safety and Health Academy to ensure that we can properly and expeditiously train our new inspectors.
I believe the increased presence of MSHA enforcement staff at the job sites will have a positive impact on mine safety and health.
And the fourth priority is to ensure that MSHA effectively uses all the tools available to us and focuses on the basics of mine safety and health.
The first basic includes meaningful inspections accompanied by firm, fair and effective enforcement.
The second basic is education and training to ensure operators and miners understand and comply with the law.
The third basic is technical support to develop technical solutions to health and safety problems and assist in their application in the mines.
I'd like to talk a little more about what we're doing at MSHA to implement the MINER Act.
We are working hard on the rulemaking that is required for us to administer and enforce the law.
We are in the deliberative process of that now, but I can give you an update on a few points. I urge you to visit MSHA's website (www.msha.gov) for the latest updates and information.
We are ensuring that Emergency Response and Preparedness Plans are reviewed, approved and implemented for all underground coal mines as specified in the Act.
We are completing work on a final rule on emergency mine evacuation that finalizes requirements in the Emergency Temporary Standard MSHA promulgated last March and conforming the final rule to the provisions contained in the MINER Act.
Some of those provisions include immediate accident notification and SCSR training at all mines, as well as life lines, additional SCSR's, and emergency evacuation training and drills at coal mines.
We are on track to meet the required publication date of December 8, 2006.
We have begun implementation of increased penalties for flagrant violations, unwarrantable failure, and immediate notification violations in accordance with the MINER Act.
We included the MINER Act penalty provisions and increased civil penalties for other violations in our recently-issued proposed rule. We held public hearings to collect input from the mining industry and other interested parties.
We will review all of the comments and materials submitted to us and are on track to meet our publication date at the end of next month.
I have issued a procedure instruction letter to all MSHA inspectors establishing uniform, Agency-wide procedures for enforcement personnel to properly evaluate flagrant violations as defined in the MINER Act.
A flagrant violation may be assessed a civil penalty of up to $220,000. The letter is available on our website for those who are interested.
We have begun drafting a proposed rule on improved certification, training and availability of mine rescue teams, and strengthening standards related to sealing of abandoned areas.
And we have established a mechanism for MSHA to serve as a liaison with victims' families, respond to family requests and be the primary information source during serious mine emergencies provided for in the MINER Act.
The MINER Act is a significant and positive development in mine safety and health. I'm looking forward to seeing the results with fewer illnesses, injuries and fatalities among our nation's MINERs.
And I look forward to the time when we send every MINER home every day, safe and healthy, to family and friends.
While the MINER Act gives us new tools to improve safety and health in America's mines - we must also ensure we make full use of the tools we already had.
I can promise you that we will remain focused on the day-to-day basics of mine safety and health: education and training, technical support, and firm, fair and meaningful inspections and enforcement of mine safety laws.
First - and most importantly - compliance with mine safety and health laws is really the cornerstone of mine safety and health in this country.
Every mine safety and health law we have exists because MINERs have lost their lives. We owe it to them to use all of the enforcement tools available to us, including unwarrantable failure orders and issuing pattern of violation orders in appropriate cases to ensure the laws are complied with.
We will aggressively deal with mine operators who seem to comply with the law only when MSHA is on-site, or who view the fines as a cost of doing business.
I want to make sure we at MSHA are dedicated - top down - to enforcing the laws, aimed at protecting, promoting and improving MINER safety and health in our nation's mines.
The second basic building block is education and training.
This not only encompasses the training that all MINERs are required to take - including those many new MINERs that join the industry everyday - but showing MINERs and operators how to comply with the law day in and day out.
The concept of "compliance assistance" has been misunderstood. Compliance assistance is not used instead of enforcement - it is in fact used to enhance enforcement.
Compliance assistance is helping MINERs and mine operators understand and comply with the law - and understand the consequences of non-compliance.
And the third basic building block, technical support, is how we at MSHA and our friends at NIOSH harness technology to make mines safer and healthier.
We help the mining industry learn about new technologies, and we help them understand how these new technologies can be applied in their mines to improve safety and health. We are constantly looking at promising technologies for their application in the mines.
Advances in mining technology have literally saved hundred's of lives - and we are looking forward to applying more and better technological solutions to safety and health problems in the future.
Among the most promising new technologies are some of those that are mandated in the MINER Act.
I'm sure you have heard about wireless systems that can potentially track and communicate with trapped MINERs underground.
As mandated by the MINER Act, MSHA is actively looking at those types of systems and evaluating them for practical use in underground mines.
To date, we have witnessed field testing of 12 communication and tracking systems at various mine sites, and we have spoken with more than 100 companies interested in developing a mine communication and/or tracking system.
New methods for controlling coal dust and particulate matter in the air have been developed, and still newer technologies are in development, and will be deployed as soon as they're ready.
In the past, roof falls in coal mines were the number one killer of MINERs. While too many MINERs are still killed by roof falls that are preventable, the number has dropped dramatically.
The evolution of the remotely controlled continuous mining machine is an example of how technology has worked hand-in-hand with production and safety.
This machine provided for extended mining cuts without exposing MINERs to unsupported roof, but the operator was not protected by a cab and was close to moving machinery.
Operational changes, and technology and have addressed those issues, by requiring the operator be in certain safer locations and through the development of a "proximity detector" to shut the continuous mining machine off if the operator is too close.
Two types of proximity detectors have been approved this year by MSHA - an exciting improvement in mine safety and health and a lifesaver for the underground MINERs in this nation.
I envision many new applications for proximity detectors to save lives in the future.
In addition to the four priorities I have laid out for you in the near term, there are other longer-term agenda items I am looking forward to pursuing.
I plan to review MSHA's current regulatory agenda to determine if our priorities are sound.
I will give the regulatory agenda careful and considered attention, and take into account the findings from the tragedies that occurred this year, as well as analyses of accident patterns, to see if rulemaking might be appropriate.
We at MSHA will also examine data on accidents to identify accident trends and areas on which we need to focus particular attention.
We will focus education and training, as well as development of new technology and targeted enforcement on these areas.
I am looking forward to meeting and working with all members of the mining community to explore all the avenues we have to improve mine safety and health in this country.
I am looking forward to the challenges I will face as the new Assistant Secretary for MSHA.
And most of all, I look forward to that day I know we will reach - the day when we can say we have achieved our goal of zero injuries, zero fatalities, and an end to occupational illness in America's mines.
Thank you for your attention today.