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Remarks of Assistant Secretary of Labor Richard E. Stickler
Mine Safety and Health Administration
West Virginia Coal Association 34th Annual Mining Symposium
Charleston, WV
January 11, 2007


Good morning, and thank you, Chris, for that nice introduction.

Good morning to you, Governor Manchin - I know of your commitment to improve mine safety and health, and I'm delighted to share the stage with you.

Thank you for caring about mine safety and health and coming to this symposium.

This is the first time I have attended the annual West Virginia Mining Symposium, and I'm looking forward to meeting a great many of you and hearing what you have to say.

This is also my first appearance before you as the new Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health.

First 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 critical time.

2006 was a difficult year for the mining community and for MSHA.

I am looking forward to leading the agency in working with the entire mining community to make 2007 a much better year for all of us

There were 47 fatalities in 2006 in our nation's coal mines, including the tragedies in West Virginia and Kentucky, and 25 fatal accidents in our nation's metal and nonmetal mines.

That is 72 too many miners who lost their lives in 2006.

This high number of fatal accidents in the mining industry is quite simply unacceptable. It is something we can - and we must - change.

I am committed to reversing the tragic upward trend of fatal accidents we experienced in 2006, and I am committed to resuming continuous progress and improvement in protecting miners' lives.

I have seen first-hand what the mining community and MSHA can accomplish by working together.

I am looking forward to once again seeing record-low fatalities among America's miners.

I want to take this opportunity right now 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 do at MSHA is in service of that ultimate goal.

We know it is an achievable goal - every year, mining operations are recognized for operating without any fatalities or lost-time injuries.

Lat month, I visited such an operation here in West Virginia. This operation won the Sentinels of Safety award last year for working over 120,000 man-hours without a lost time accident

When I visited the operation, I met with the employees and they explained how they achieved this record.

They told me it started with a commitment by every individual in the operation.

Second, they said every person at the operation was empowered to identify safety hazards and at-risk practices.

Third, the miners told me everyone got involved to develop solutions and safe job procedures to solve safety problems and minimize risks.

Fourth, they said they continually showed each other they valued safety by complimenting each other on positive safety actions and by making each other aware of hazards conditions and at-risk practices.

What this boils down to is the commitment and involvement of every individual at every level of the organization.

This has to start at the top and it has to include everyone. I wish we could clone this process.

If individual mining operations can achieve this goal, then surely our combined effort can make this industry injury and fatality-free.

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 last year and issuing the reports of our findings.

These investigations are meticulous, and we are ensuring that we leave no issue unexplored as we work to identify the circumstances surrounding these tragedies.

The reports we are developing 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.

The second priority I am focusing on for the near term is to press ahead with our recruitment, training and deployment of 170 additional coal mine enforcement personnel provided for 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 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.

My third 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.

We are working hard on the rulemaking that is required for us to administer and enforce the MINER Act.

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 completed the final rule on emergency mine evacuation that finalized requirements in the Emergency Temporary Standard MSHA promulgated last March and conformed the final rule to the provisions contained in the MINER Act. That was published on December 8.

One of the provisions contained in that final rule is MSHA's National One Call toll-free telephone number of 1-800-746-1553 to notify MSHA within 15 minutes for immediately reportable accidents.

You can find more information on our webpage, including printable posters for your facilities.

Other provisions of that final rule include SCSR training at all mines, life lines, additional SCSR's, and emergency evacuation and fire fighting instruction at coal mines.

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 civil penalty proposed rule.

We held public hearings to collect input from the mining industry and other interested parties.

We have submitted a draft of the final rule to the Office of Management and Budget for their review in accordance with required regulatory procedures.

After our discussions are complete, we will send it to the Federal Register to be published.

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. This letter is also available on our website.

We have begun drafting a proposed rule on improved certification, training and availability of mine rescue teams.

We are studying and researching available data in order to establish a final seal strength requirement for seals that are used to seal abandoned areas.

We have implemented a mechanism in which MSHA will 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.

And two days ago, we convened the first meeting of the Technical Study Panel on the utilization of belt air and the fire retardant properties of belt materials in underground coal mining as required by the MINER Act.

The charter governing the panel was published on December 22 in the Federal Register, and is available on our website.

The panel will prepare and submit a report within one year regarding the utilization of belt air and the fire retardant properties of belt materials in underground coal mines.

Members of the panel, who volunteered to serve, are prominent and experienced mine safety and health professionals.

You can find the details of the panel on our website.

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 make sure we make full use of the tools we already had.

My 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.

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 is education and training to ensure operators and miners understand and comply with the law.

This not only encompasses the training that all miners are required to take, it also includes helping miners and mine supervisors understand the laws, how to comply with the laws, and understand the consequences of non-compliance.

The mining industry has been expanding due to increasing demand at the same time we are facing increasing attrition rates due to the retirements of baby boomers.

Some have projected that 50,000 inexperienced miners will enter the mining industry during the next 7 years.

This creates a tremendous challenge and will require more training resources and innovative training methods to ensure these new miners are properly trained.

The third basic is technical support to develop technical solutions to health and safety problems and assist in their application in the mines.

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.

During my career, asvances in mining technology have literally saved hundreds 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.

MSHA is actively evaluating the practical application of wireless systems that can potentially track and communicate with trapped miners underground.

To date, we have witnessed field testing of 16 communication and tracking systems at various mine sites, and we have spoken with more than 120 companies interested in developing a mine communication and/or tracking system.

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.

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 last 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.