In a Perfect World

Therese Dunphy

December 1, 2009

by Therese Dunphy, Editor-in-Chief

As I interviewed this year’s AggMan of the Year, Cheryl Ann Suzio (see page xx), she shared a different perspective of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) than the one typically voiced by aggregate producers. She has traditionally welcomed an inspector’s visit to her operation. That certainly caught my attention.

Listening to her recount her largely positive 25 years’ worth of interactions with MSHA reminded me of inspectors I’ve met throughout the years who participate in their local Holmes Association meetings. These inspectors, henceforth referred to as the gray-hairs, earn the mud on their steel-toe boots. They know the companies, equipment, and personnel at the sites they visit. They understand both the regulatory and operational aspects of mining. These inspectors will point out an inefficiency — not issue a citation — and suggest ways to improve the plant process. They also provide information about incident trends, best practices, and sources for additional information. Their visits are beneficial to the mines.

There is, however, a second kind of inspector. These inspectors, the wet-behind-the-ears, can be identified by a surplus of opinion and a deficit of knowledge. Like the school yard bully, they come to the site exuding attitude and looking for a reason to issue paper. To make matters worse, these inspectors don’t acknowledge their lack of experience or consistency. By the end of one of their visits, managers and miners alike are happy to see them leave.

  Unfortunately, it seems that the second type of inspector is beginning to outnumber the first. An October news article by Senior Editor Kerry Clines, “Is MSHA being heavy handed?,” sparked numerous responses from readers who say that, like the Tennessee producers featured in the story, they are facing a steep increase in both the number and value of citations received during recent inspections.

Has poor safety performance led to these increased fines? Not so, says a Washington producer who told Aggregates Manager that one of her sites had received $4,000 in citation-related fines from 2003 to 2008. In 2009, the same site received $25,000 in fines. The company has no accidents in its mining history, uses MSHA resources, conducts mock inspections, and brings in private consultants specifically for advice on regulatory compliance. “Despite these measures, it proves an illusive task to satisfy the whims of each inspector who visits our mines,” a site manager says. “There is just too much subjectivity in the inspection process for us to satisfy each possible inspector’s interpretation of every safety standard.”

It may not be possible to clone the gray-hairs left at MSHA, but it is possible to leverage their experience and expertise to train the next generation. Have these inspectors remind the wet-behind-the-ears what MSHA can and should be. It would not only create more producers who welcome inspectors at their gates, it would ultimately lead to safer operations throughout the nation.

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