In 2014, the U.S. coal mining industry reported the lowest number of coal mining deaths in recorded history; this follows a steady decline in coal fatalities over recent years. Yet the overall fatality count for the U.S. mining industry in 2014 was just the fourth-lowest annual total on record.
The explanation? A spike in fatalities in the metal/nonmetal (MNM) mining sector. This sector reported their own record low fatality numbers back in 2011 and 2012, with 16 deaths each year. However, MNM fatalities rose to over 20 in 2013, and reported another increase in 2014 with a total of 25 deaths in the sector.
“Unacceptable” according to MSHA chief Joe Main, who has announced an increased focus in 2015 on combating fatal incidents, serious injuries and their root causes, particularly in light of the increasing fatality numbers in the metal and nonmetal mining sector.
Increasing Enforcement Efforts
MSHA’s “Rules to Live By” is an outreach and enforcement program that’s been around since 2010, but recent announcements from the federal mine agency are pushing the program back into the spotlight and expanding on its influence. Intended to address and prevent some of the most common causes of fatalities, the Rules to Live By program highlights frequently cited standards that cause or contribute to fatal accidents in the mining industry.
On February 25, 2015, Joe Main announced at an MSHA stakeholder meeting that the agency would be stepping up enforcement efforts for the standards covered under Rules to Live By. Specifically, any operators with more violations than the industry average will be risking additional impact inspections or spot inspections. A new web-based tool, the Rules to Live By Calculator, makes it possible for mine operators to monitor the number of violations at their facility in comparison to other mines.
MSHA is also rolling out an aggressive fatality prevention initiative onsite at metal and nonmetal mines, temporarily reassigning several coal inspectors to assist with “walk and talk” inspections. MSHA has called upon its training specialists from Educational Field Services (EHS) to assist with this initiative as well.
These inspections have a particular focus on mining occupations where the most fatalities have occurred. Since October 2013 there have been 37 fatalities in the metal/nonmetal sector (shockingly, this is more than double the number of fatalities reported in the previous three fiscal years combined). Of those 37 metal/nonmetal deaths, 9 of the victims were supervisors, 7 were truck drivers, and 10 were employed by contractors. Mining companies should anticipate that inspectors will be speaking to miners in these roles during their walk and talk inspections.
How Can Mining Companies Prepare?
MSHA’s Metal/Nonmetal Administrator, Neil Merrifield, warned mining companies in the MNM sector not to expect a business as usual approach from MSHA in these upcoming months, stating firmly that “business as usual is not working.”
Mine operators should take this as a call to action. Inspectors will be expecting to see proof that hazards are being identified and addressed promptly, as several pre-shift inspection standards (including 30 CFR 56.18001 examination of working places, 56.14100(b) examination of equipment for defects affecting safety, and 56.3200correction of hazardous conditions) have been identified as contributory factors in a number of the 37 fatal incidents.
Proper documentation of these inspections and related corrective actions will be critical, so if you don’t have a thorough and conscientious approach to Inspection Management, now is the time to get your ducks in a row!
Contractor safety is also high on MSHA’s radar, as is supervisor training. MSHA’s recent announcements have stressed the importance of training, and operators would be wise to take this opportunity to review their supervisor training records and task training policies in particular to ensure that supervisors and miners are being properly trained for all aspects of their day-to-day duties. If you find that you’re having difficulty ensuring that training takes place or is adequately documented for inspectors, it may be time to consider a Training Management System to assist in tracking training for employees and contractors alike.
One thing seems clear: the mining industry, and the metal/nonmetal mining sector in particular, should expect that increased scrutiny will be the new normal in the months ahead.