Straight Talk on Safety

Therese Dunphy

November 4, 2009

by Therese Dunphy, Editor-in-Chief

During the last 12 months, aggregate producers have faced challenges unprecedented throughout the nearly 20 years I have covered this industry. The nation’s economy has faltered, leading to drastic decreases in construction. Aggregates production dropped by 27 percent during the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2008. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has more than doubled the dollar amount of fines assessed against aggregate producers during the last three years. Essentially, aggregates operators are producing and selling less, but spending more on fines.

As aggregates operators deal with this conundrum, leaders within the Department of Labor may make a tough situation even worse. Some are signaling a belief that punitive measures are what improve safety. For example, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis may be trying to revive the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER) bill, as well as expanding the authority of MSHA.

Her potential future employee, Joseph Main, also offered some interesting comments to questions posed by senators serving on the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. When asked about the safety of American mines in relation to the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER Act), he said: “The MINER Act improvements and subsequent regulations are having an impact… The increased enforcement and penalties/fines should provide a deterrent that encourages mine operators to improve mine safety compliance.”

Even more interesting was his response to a question about how MSHA, like other federal agencies, could do its job more efficiently. Main said, “The recent high number of violations and penalties/fines indicates, however, that mine operators need to take a greater ownership of mine safety and health… If the mining industry really does take a greater ownership and reduce violations in the workplace, it would reduce the amount of agency resources needed (reduced follow-up inspection time at mines, reduced administrative processing of violations, etc.).”

Finally, Main also addressed the issue of restricted operator access to the conference process. He noted that it would be “prudent to evaluate the conferencing process to determine if it is worthwhile and effective in the resolution of disagreements between MSHA inspectors and operators… I understand that mine operators have requested a conference on a high number of violations. This has created a huge backlog that will require additional agency resources to address. This should also be part of that review.”

Before either Solis or Main takes action, they might first want to consider that the aggregates industry has voluntarily sought to reduce accidents and review its safety record. It is through a commitment to safety that industry workers are protected, not through overly burdensome regulations, heavy-handed enforcement, and penalties that may be more likely to drive operators out of business than to protect their employees.

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