David Zatezalo: MSHA Works to Protect Miners' Safety
By David Zatezalo
September 2, 2019 - More than 330,000 men and women work in the mining industry across this country. At the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration, it's our job to ensure they are protected from safety and health hazards and are free to express concerns about health and safety without retaliation.
Our mission under the Mine Safety and Health Act is clear: "To prevent death, illness, and injury from mining and promote safe and healthful workplaces for U.S. miners."
On this 125th Labor Day, the Trump administration salutes America's miners, honors the dignity of their work, and reiterates our commitment to their wellbeing. Mining jobs in America are extremely diverse: More than 13,000 mines and facilities fall under MSHA's jurisdiction, ranging from enormous underground systems to small gravel pits and quarries. Coal, salt, stone, gold, copper, and granite are just a few of the materials mined. Along with digging and transporting, operations also may involve blasting, dredging, electrical work, and building roads and dams. We respect the work of our miners and the dignity that goes into each job.
As with so much of our economy, mining jobs are increasingly tech-driven, yet hazards are still part of the trade. Even the smallest operation involves machinery and materials that could injure or kill a miner if not handled safely. A century ago, more than 3,500 miners died in a single year. A steady decline in annual mining fatalities began as safety and health progress was commercialized and legislated. Through the years, MSHA and its predecessor agencies have worked to improve conditions in surface and underground mines, and that has been reflected in dropping fatality and injury rates. MSHA recorded a record low number of mining fatalities, at 22, and a record low fatality rate in fiscal year 2018.
We've shown that, working jointly with miners, mine operators, equipment manufacturers, and stakeholders, we can achieve safety levels that were not thought to be possible several decades ago. But it's still not enough. We thoroughly investigate each fatality, seeking information that can be used to prevent similar incidents in the future. Data from those investigations also help direct our outreach and enforcement efforts.
Our inspectors inspect every year-round mining operation at least twice a year, and four times a year if the mine is underground. They meet with miners and mine managers, inspect for hazards, take air and dust samples if required, and provide guidance on safety and health. Last year, MSHA conducted 37,000 inspections.
We also act quickly whenever we note an emerging trend. For example, in the fall of 2018, a series of mobile equipment fires resulted in one fatality and one serious injury. In response, MSHA developed an initiative to inform operators and miners of the potential hazards and inspected 4,288 pieces of mobile equipment that use fire suppression systems to confirm they had been installed properly and were functioning as intended.
Another safety focus has been on powered haulage an accident category that is responsible for an inordinate number of fatal accidents. Powered haulage accounted for half of the fatalities recorded in the past two years. Each one of those accidents was preventable. In some cases, a life was lost because of a moment of distraction, or a shortcut taken doing a routine task.
Engineering controls, such as collision warning/avoidance systems, could sound warnings when other vehicles, miners, or structures pose a potential collision hazard, or activate automatic braking to avoid collisions. MSHA has solicited comments on these issues with all stakeholders and is now in the process of analyzing the feedback and evaluating next steps.
The health of miners is equally important to safety. MSHA has not forgotten the thousands of miners and former miners afflicted with black lung disease. To prevent further hazardous exposures, we are vigorously enforcing lower exposure limits to respirable coal dust and increased sampling for air breathed by coal miners underground. We have also stepped up our sampling of air at surface mines and facilities, looking for quartz as well as coal dust overexposures. In several recent cases, we issued closure orders when miners were over -exposed to quartz.
We are seeing results: For three years running, samples collected by MSHA and coal miners themselves have revealed less than 1% exceedance of the new limits. Ten years ago, over 16% of quartz samples exceeded the threshold. In 2018, that dropped to 1.2% - the lowest since MSHA began keeping records. But our work continues; we want to be sure that everyone takes exposure to unhealthful air seriously.
We can never be complacent in our successes in reducing mining related injuries and deaths. Mining requires everyone's vigilance to keep it safe.
David G. Zatezalo is the assistant secretary of labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor.