June 1, 2014
Since 2011, the metal/non-metal mining sector has been on a steady path toward safer operations. Year over year, a lower number of fatalities have occurred, but that positive trend came to an abrupt end last fall. Beginning in October 2013, a rash of fatalities has plagued the industry, and it has nearly doubled the pace of incidents compared to previous years. Between Oct. 1, 2013, and May 1, 2014, there were 19 metal/non-metal fatalities.
“This is a moment when we need to step back and see what we’re doing,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor Joseph A. Main during a May 5 stakeholder summit to address the issue. A combination of outreach, education, and enforcement will be brought to bear, he said, to reverse that trend.
“I think this is an unacceptable trend for all of us in the mining industry. I didn’t take this job to have this kind of record,” he noted. “I’m going to be doing everything I can — and we can, as an agency — to give miners better protection at the mines. Working together, collectively, we all hope to accomplish the goal of making mines safer in this country.”
Neal Merrifield, MSHA’s metal/non-metal administrator, suggested that one way to improve safety is to data mine information about recent incidents. In its review of the fatalities, MSHA noted that nearly a third of the accidents were in underground operations, four involved contractors, and three were related to explosives. Maintenance work also stood out as a common task among those killed, and the lack of personal protective equipment contributed to numerous fatalities.
Another statistic that stands out is the percentage of fatalities among workers with little work experience on the task that led to the fatality. More than 25 percent of the last 19 fatalities involve people performing tasks with which they had less than a year’s experience. “People that have very little experience on the type of activity they are doing are the ones putting themselves in harm’s way,” Merrifield said. “This is an area where I believe we can be doing a better job of training.”
Finally, another disturbing trend is that nearly a third of the accidents involved management or supervisors. While top industry leadership has been very vocal in its support for safety, the rash of fatalities involving supervisors — and, in one case, a safety director— indicates a breakdown between words and deeds. Those who are responsible for day-to-day operations must not only preach the gospel of safety; they must also provide a visible example of how to work safely. Lives depend on it.