Remarks of Joseph A. Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health

Mine Safety and Health
Office of Assistant Secretary
Nashville, Tennessee
March 22, 2016
Remarks of Joseph A. Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health
National Sand, Stone and Gravel Association’s 2016 Convention

I appreciate the opportunity to be here today to update you on the state of safety and health in the nation’s mines.  

I am pleased to report that due to efforts by MSHA and the industry, we are seeing significant improvements.  Many of the actions we undertook around 2010 have contributed to those positive results and produced a road map for the future.

Since 2010, mining deaths and injuries have been at historic lows; coal mine respirable dusts - including silica - have dropped to historic lows each year; the number of mines with chronic violation records identified in POV screenings has dramatically fallen, and those mines undergoing the POV process have significantly improved compliance and reduced injuries; operators’ compliance with safety and health standards has improved with fewer violations cited by MSHA and fewer penalties being assessed; the significant and substantial violations cited at the top violator mines have dropped significantly; miners have greater protections against retaliation; and communication and collaboration between MSHA and industry stakeholders have greatly improved.

This is good news for miners and the mining community.

Although there is more work to be done, last year was one of the best years in the history of the 1977 Mine Safety and Health Act.  Mining deaths were at record lows, at just 28, they were down considerably from the 46 in 2014. 

Coal mining deaths at 11 were also at an all-time low, and preliminary fatal rates to be published shortly show that even accounting for coal mine closings, it was the safest year on record.

We saw a considerable improvement in metal and nonmetal industry too -- there were only 17 deaths last year, near record lows and down from the 29 deaths in 2014.  The record low rate of fatalities in metal nonmetal is particularly remarkable because at one point in the year, it looked like we were headed in the opposite direction. 

In one day on August 3rd, we had three separate tragic deaths – a fatality count we had not seen since 2002.  We took that as a wake-up call and following aggressive and strategic actions by MSHA, and supported by the mining community, the sector went well over four months without a death.  This stretch broke all records, and the industry finished out the year holding to two deaths, also a record low.  Moreover, in a seven month period following the August deaths, there were just three deaths.

Let me tell you about how we have managed to get us to this historic level of safety achievement.  It has taken a lot of work and careful monitoring and most importantly, it has taken partnership with all of you.  Following nearly three years of record safety in metal and nonmetal industry, from 2011 through fiscal year 2013, mining deaths began to increase in October of 2013.  MSHA launched fatality reduction efforts, including enhanced enforcement and extensive education of and outreach to the industry and miners.  We also launched quarterly conference calls with our nation’s trainers and most importantly, enlisted industry participation. 

When we saw those three deaths on one day in August 2015 threaten to reverse our progress towards returning to record levels of safety, we upped our game at MSHA once again. The very next day I assembled our MSHA staff to retool our enforcement and outreach efforts.  We put more boots on the ground to conduct enhanced inspections, including impact inspections, looking harder at the causes of the 52 recent deaths that occurred since October of 2013.  We also increased our “walk and talks” to raise awareness about the causes of these fatalities and the best practices to prevent them. We began a series of monthly special alerts so we could continually focus national attention on our safety message.

I then called together our industry stakeholders to help us spread the same message and to conduct better find-and-fix mine site examinations.  The mining community---including national and state aggregate associations, companies and labor organizations---responded immediately to this call to action. 

Through newsletters and blogs, the National Sand, Stone and Gravel Association (NSSGA) in particular became a pipeline to the mining community. 

Last October, MSHA issued an industry alert to focus attention on what is historically the deadliest month in metal nonmetal mining – October - and for the first time in history, there were no mining deaths that month.  MSHA worked with the International Minerals Association on a Confined Space initiative issued in November, 2015 and MSHA issued a special Holiday alert in December. That was followed by the joint MSHA / National Lime Association Lock Out Tag Out Alert issued in January of this year. In February, the NSSGA, with MSHA, sponsored a special Machinery and Equipment Aler

From March to May, stakeholders across the country will be holding “Spring Thaw” events and in April, MSHA will be issuing an alert on what is historically the 2nd deadliest month - April - in the metal and nonmetal mining industry.

We will also be working with the New Mexico Mining Association on a warehouse safety alert and have two videos in the works:  one with the Maine Aggregates Association on safety in small mines and one with NSSGA on MSHA-industry cooperation.

In addition, many state and regional industry groups---with MSHA in attendance---are having their own discussions about reducing fatalities. The Kansas Sunflower Safety Council, the North Texas Joseph A Holmes Association, the Oklahoma Aggregates Association, the Missouri Mine Rescue Association and the Kansas City Mine Rescue Association recently held such meetings with their members.  These are just a few of the efforts held and scheduled across the country.

Our collective efforts paid off, and following the August fatalities, the industry went 133 days without a death, breaking a record of 82 days set in 2010.  And in the seven months since, through February of this year, deaths were held to three, a record low. I get upset when I hear people say that mining is an inherently dangerous occupation and that we have to expect fatalities.  We don’t have to accept fatalities as the cost of doing business in this industry.  The record shows that zero deaths are possible if we continue to follow our roadmap and build on its success.

NSSGA’s leadership and members have taken a leading role in these activities, and I look forward to our continued cooperation to improve miner safety and health.

Our district personnel are also meeting with stakeholders.  In February, the MSHA South Central District staff conducted two stakeholder meetings in Oklahoma, one at the Martin Marietta Davis Plant with nearly 30 stakeholders from seven mining operations and the other at Dolese Brothers’ Mustang Sand Plant with 24 stakeholders from nine mine operations in attendance.

In addition, our field services personnel are continually visiting with metal and nonmetal stakeholders at their mines. In June of 2014, we realigned our field training staff by combining field and small mines staff into one unit; this has resulted in improved services to the mining community. In 2015, our field staff conducted nearly 7,800 mine visits, about half at small mines. We are also back on track providing $8.4 million for state training grants.

It’s worth taking a step back to see how far we’ve come together. When I arrived at MSHA in late 2009, I, along with a dedicated staff, immediately set to work to implement actions I thought were necessary to improve mine safety and health and the way we do business at MSHA. 

To reduce mining deaths, I believed that MSHA and the industry must concentrate on mining conditions most likely to claim a miner’s life.  So in January 2010, we launched the “Rules to Live By” initiative that focuses attention on violations most commonly cited when a fatality occurs.

In addition, to prevent the terrible black lung disease that had been a cause or contributing factor in over 76,000 mining deaths since 1968, we began the “End Black Lung – Act Now” initiative, which involved enhanced enforcement, education and outreach and our historic black lung final rule.  

To deal with chronic violators and troubled mines, we overhauled the unused Pattern of Violations (POV) enforcement tool and created a special impact inspection program.

We beefed up enforcement of worker voice protections; improved mine emergency response readiness; and responded quickly to an increasing backlog of contested citations and orders.

Back in 2009 there was considerable criticism about inconsistency in MSHA’s enforcement of the Mine Act, and some of it was justified.  About half of our inspectorate had two years or less experience, and the 2006 MINER Act, coupled with stiffer penalty regulations in 2007, increased enforcement and fines.  There had also been a breakdown in communications between MSHA and the mining industry. 

We rolled up our sleeves and quickly went to work, establishing a training program for MSHA field office supervisors who review violations issued by inspectors, and regular refresher trainings for front-line inspectors. 

We began crisscrossing the country to meet with our stakeholders to get feedback on how we could improve mine safety, at the same time encouraging dialogue between mine operators and MSHA districts to resolve safety and health disputes.  

We also changed the way MSHA rolls out new initiatives: engaging the industry in advance of implementation, and offering the same training information we provide to our inspectors.  In addition, we stepped up our partnerships with industry. We worked with the NSSGA to develop the highly successful conveyor initiative, piloting it with state aggregate associations.  Since the 2010 launch, and a subsequent guarding initiative, guarding citations have dropped 40%.   The fall protection, ladder safety and hazard communication guidance we issued all grew out of collaborative efforts with our stakeholders.   

In 2012, I established a pre-contest conferencing process so that concerns about MSHA’s citations and orders could be resolved before they became matters for litigation.   Since then, MSHA has held conferences with operators on about 19,000 violations; 60 percent were resolved without resort to litigation.

MSHA is continuously assessing ways to further reduce mining injuries, illnesses and deaths.  We are updating “Rules to Live By” and we hope to roll it out later this spring.  Last year we designed an online tool so each mine can now track compliance with the “Rules to Live By” standards and compare compliance with similar mines.  We are now working on enhancements for that tool.  As we have in the past, we will be meeting with stakeholders as we implement these initiatives.   

Effective find and fix examinations are critical to the prevention of injuries, illnesses and deaths.  We currently have a draft proposed rule on examination requirements under interagency review at OMB, and as always, would welcome comments when it is released.

In 2010, we revised the Pattern of Violations (POV) program to address chronic violation behavior.  Despite Congressional action in 1977 creating this enforcement tool, POV had never been effectively used. During the first 2010 screening, 51 mines met the new screening criteria. By the 2015 screening the dramatic improvements made led to only one mine was identified, and after review, did not meet the POV requirements. 

Mines placed under a POV action have significantly improved compliance as violations and injuries dropped significantly.  

MSHA created a new web tool that allows every mine to monitor its violation status and take proactive actions.  Many mines have taken advantage of that opportunity.  POV is a law that works, and there is no reason any mine should allow compliance to deteriorate enough to be placed on a POV. 

The MSHA impact inspection program targeting troubled mines has led to much quicker identification and correction of hazardous conditions.   Since the program began in 2010, MSHA has conducted nearly 1,100 impact inspections.

In addition, these efforts have led to a 40 percent drop in S&S violations cited at the top 200 metal and nonmetal and coal mines ranked by number of S&S issuances from 2010 to 2015.

The improvement in compliance has naturally led to a reduction in violations and penalties. In 2010, MSHA issued about 73,700 citations and orders at metal and nonmetal mines and assessed about $53 million in penalties.  By 2014, the number dropped by about 20 percent to about 58,800, and penalties assessed dropped 38 percent to just over $33 million. MSHA will be publishing the data for 2015 in the near future. 

MSHA, with the Solicitor of Labor’s assistance, has reduced the backlog of contested citations and orders from a high of about 89,000 citations at the end of 2010, to about 19,000 citations at the end of 2015, a reduction of almost 80 percent.  The backlog is now down near 2007 levels. We believe our efforts to improve consistency, the pre-contest conferences, and better guidance on our mandatory standards have played a role in reducing the backlog as well.

In 2014, we issued a final rule reforming the coal mine respirable dust program to end black lung, a terrible disease.

Since the Black Lung –ACT NOW campaign was launched in late 2009--- and along with the 2014  rule, which closes several loopholes that masked miners’ exposure to harmful coal mine dust, coal mine and silica dusts  have dropped each year to new historic lows. MSHA’s extensive assistance to the industry in implementing the rule has paid dividends as operators have achieved a nearly 99 percent compliance with the more than 86,000 respirable dust samples collected last year under the new rule.    

As OSHA completes its work on a silica rule, developing a proposed rule on silica for metal and nonmetal mines is on our regulatory agenda.

Protecting workers who exercise their rights is a top priority at MSHA.  Since 2009, MSHA, with its Solicitor’s office, has filed a record number of discrimination cases and temporary reinstatements.  We believe miners should be a valued part of the development and implementation of a mine’s safety and health program, and many mines with successful programs have done just that. 

We have overhauled mine emergency response, establishing a separate association to provide national guidance and support, making needed technology changes, establishing a new mine rescue station in the Midwest to assist mine rescue teams and training up the mine rescue community. 

The support for and attendance at national and local mine rescue contests are a testament to the metal and nonmetal industry’s enthusiasm for mine rescue.

Integral to all of our actions to improve miner safety and health, has been our extensive outreach to and collaboration with our stakeholders.  This includes traveling the country to hear firsthand from our stakeholders.  

For example, while in Missouri for a stakeholder meeting, Neal Merrifield and I toured the Stamper underground limestone mine owned by Martin Marietta. This mine had not had any lost time accidents since 2009, and the mine credits training and employee engagement for its excellent safety record, a message we heard from many of the mines we visited. 

About a month ago, I took the Deputy Secretary of Labor, Chris Lu and other DOL and MSHA officials to the Luck Stone quarry in Manassas, Virginia where we had an opportunity to discuss the company’s safety program.  In November, Neal Merrifield and I visited the Lehigh Cement Company’s Union Bridge, Maryland cement manufacturing facility, where we also discussed the plant’s mine safety program with miners and mine management.

In December, President Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation or FAST Act into law.  It is the first law in 10 years that provides long-term funding certainty for surface transportation, authorizing over $300 billion for fiscal years 2016-2020.  State and local governments can now move forward with their critical transportation projects, such as building new highways.

As the aggregates industry grows to meet increased demand for its products, it will need additional workers.   With coal production in decline, thousands of coal miners are being laid off from their jobs, not only in Appalachia but in other coal areas across the country.  Having a ready pool of candidates for jobs in the metal and nonmetal sector can be a win-win for the industry and displaced coal miners. 

MSHA and Department of Labor (DOL) can assist you with your hiring needs, including training, and can help you locate where dislocated coal miners are looking for employment.  As the Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez testified to Congress last week, DOL has made substantial investments in training through the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), including apprenticeships, and the Veterans Employment and Training Services (VETS).

We notified the aggregates industry of these opportunities in October, 2014 at a Roundtable Discussion held by the Secretary.  If you haven’t already made contact with personnel at ETA and VETS, we can put you in touch with them to explore these opportunities.  If you are interested in hiring displaced miners, we can also provide you county-by-county information on where lay-offs are occurring.

As I have said many times, the most important measure of our progress is the number of miners who go home safe and healthy at the end of each shift.  In 2015, the industry experienced a record low number of mining fatalities.  If we continue to work together, we can sustain and build on the progress we have made so far.

We owe the nation’s miners that much.  I know that President Obama and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez share this goal.