The future of mine safety

By |  July 10, 2016

With a number of monumental changes taking place in mine safety over the last century, one can only imagine the transformation the industry will undergo over the next 100 years.

In the early 1900s, mining deaths were not uncommon. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for dozens – sometimes hundreds – of miners’ lives to be snuffed out in a single event.

In June 1917, 163 miners perished in a fire at a Montana copper mine during what became the deadliest year in metal and nonmetal mining. And, as astounding as it may seem today, the number of annual coal mining deaths didn’t drop below 1,000 until 1948.


Joe Main

I’ve been at the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) for nearly seven years and, in that short time, we’ve seen significant improvements in safety and health. Mining was registering the lowest number of mining deaths in 2011 and 2012, and 2013 was on a similar track until the numbers started creeping back up.

A particularly troubling day occurred in August 2014, when we experienced three separate, tragic deaths at mines in Nevada, North Dakota and Virginia. Those events threatened to reverse the positive course we’d been making, so we took those as a wakeup call. MSHA upped its game – with more boots on the ground for enhanced inspections, and increased “walk and talks” to raise awareness about the root cause of fatalities and the best practices to prevent them.

MSHA’s “Rules to Live By” initiative specifically highlights the mining conditions most likely to claim a miner’s life. MSHA also began distributing monthly alerts to continuously focus national attention on safety messages. Following these aggressive and strategic actions – and thanks to the support of MSHA’s stakeholders – metal and nonmetal mining went over four months without a single death.

MSHA has changed the way it rolls out new initiatives, engaging the industry in advance of implementation and offering the same training information provided to inspectors.

100-year outlook

Over the next 100 years, our nation’s need for raw materials is unlikely to dwindle. In fact, an aging infrastructure will signal even more demand for aggregate products to rebuild our roads and bridges.

When President Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act last December, he committed more than $300 billion to state and local governments to address critical transportation projects. That all but guarantees a robust growth in aggregate jobs.

Over the coming years, technological advances will make mining more efficient and better protect miners’ exposure to harmful dust, noise and other potentially toxic substances. Automated systems will shield miners from hazards posed by encounters with mining equipment.

And, if MSHA exists in 100 years, I hope the agency will continue to follow the current roadmap and build on its success. That means aggressive enforcement, education, training and outreach.

Last year marked the safest year in the history of mining, with 28 fatalities overall. If my successors and the industry at large stay on course, I sincerely believe a fatality-free year is ultimately achievable.

Joseph A. Main is assistant secretary of labor for the Mine Safety & Health Administration.

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