P&Q exclusive: MSHA chief reflects on 2023 mining fatalities

By |  May 11, 2023
Says MSHA assistant secretary Christopher Williamson: “We accomplish more if we all work together, and miners are safer and healthier as a result.” Photo: MSHA

Says MSHA assistant secretary Christopher Williamson: “We accomplish more if we all work together, and miners are safer and healthier as a result.” Photo: MSHA

The Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) last month detailed how May 17 will be the agency’s annual “Stand Down to Save Lives” day, with the agency encouraging everyone in the mining industry to be on alert for hazardous conditions that lead to serious and fatal accidents.

Ahead of the inaugural “Stand Down to Save Lives” day, MSHA assistant secretary Christopher Williamson paid Pit & Quarry editor-in-chief Kevin Yanik a visit to discuss the goals of the initiative, the 2023 increase in mining fatalities, and more.

P&Q: Tell us about the intent behind the ‘Stand Down to Save Lives’ day May 17. What are you hoping to see mine operators do next Wednesday? Similarly, what sorts of actions would you like to see operators take up long-term to ultimately save lives?

Williamson: We are trying to take the lead here and bring everyone together to focus on this very important issue. Unfortunately for all of us in the mining industry, we’ve started the year off in a way that [none] of us would have liked. So, what do we do about that?

My message has been [that] miners are safer and healthier if we all work together. I think that’s what Congress intended for all of us to do, as well. MSHA is certainly trying to take the lead here [and] do the things that historically we’ve traditionally done well.

We have the global view. We’re seeing all of these things, trying to identify and bring out some best practices and things that we’re seeing at the top level – and to really get [the] industry, labor … to focus on some of these things. That way, we can try to identify and eliminate potential hazards that are out there that we know can cost miners their lives.Photo: MSHA logo

Two years ago, [we saw] the most fatalities that the industry had experienced since 2014. Last year, we had 29. That’s still 29 too many, but there was a reduction, and I believe it was [by] eight fatalities. So, [there was] some improvement – and a significant improvement in powered haulage, which I think is reflective of some of the focus that MSHA put on that [with] some initiatives that took place, [as well as] some greater focus on the part of the mining industry.

Unfortunately, so far this year, the industry has experienced 18 fatalities. That’s too high. So, we’re going to try to do something about that and try to have a better end to the year.

That’s why one of the things we decided to do – and we’ve done it in the past – [is have] stand-downs for safety. A lot of times, that’s occurred when there has been a spike in fatalities. I thought it was important in thinking about it to create an annual day where we ask the entire mining community to really focus on safety. Take some time [and] have some discussions.

We’re going to be very active. I’m going to be going to a mine site in Maryland. Others from MSHA leadership are going to be going out to mine sites. Obviously, our enforcement personnel and our EFSMS (Educational Field & Small Mine Services) personnel – all our field personnel – are going to go out. It’s not only going to be the one day, but also the entire week.

Those initiatives aren’t going to stop just after the week, either. But the week is really an opportunity to ask everybody to come together and take some time to focus on some of these things – and address some of these issues that, unfortunately, we keep seeing.

P&Q: In your April 14 letter to the mining community, you list some of the causes of 2023 mining fatalities (i.e., vehicle collisions, electrocutions, falls from elevated surfaces, equipment rollovers, drowning). Are there any underlying themes in these fatal accidents (i.e., youth, inexperience, training or lack thereof) that might help the mining community understand why these various accidents are happening this year?

Williamson: One of the ways we can lead is take the global view and then distill that down and share that. There are some things we’re talking about. We talked about them on our stakeholder call that we had recently. As you noted, I mentioned some things in the letter.

One of them is experience: We’re seeing less experience at the mine site – less overall experience.

Some of the issues we’re seeing are [related to] training: site-specific hazard awareness training, task training, lack of adequate training.

Examinations across the board [are another]: workplace examinations, examinations of machinery and different types of equipment.

Those are some of the things we’re seeing, and they’re some of what I would call ‘bread-and-butter’ safety things. They’re basic things. We know that if they’re done correctly, [we] can identify and eliminate hazards that potentially could cause accidents that can cost miners their lives.

[We’ve had] 18 fatalities overall. Fourteen of those are metal/nonmetal. Of the 14 in metal/nonmetal, 12 have been surface. Even within that 12, three are powered haulage, four are machinery and three are electrical.

Avatar photo

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry. He can be reached at 216-706-3724 or kyanik@northcoastmedia.net.

Comments are closed