From the Desk of Assistant Secretary Joseph A. Main
Emphasizing the Importance of Safety and Health Programs
Over the past five years, we have worked hard at MSHA to retool and improve mine safety and health, and this work has contributed to record low fatality and injury rates; however, a recent increase in fatalities at metal and nonmetal mines has overshadowed some of those improvements.
As part of the response to the increase, MSHA has conducted extensive outreach to the mining industry, including emphasizing the importance of mine safety and health programs. This issue was also raised at a stakeholder meeting held responding to the increased metal and nonmetal fatalities. Mine operators need to adopt safety and health management programs, or reexamine their existing programs, to better manage safety and health, eliminate hazards, and prevent injuries and illnesses.
In September 2010, MSHA published a notice for public meetings and sought comments on effective safety and health management programs, noting that they should include the following core components:
- management commitment;
- worker involvement;
- workplace inspections to identify hazards and violations of mandatory health and safety standards;
- hazard prevention and control;
- safety and health training; and
- program evaluation.
MSHA received useful information through testimony and written comments that will help mine operators improve existing safety and health programs or design new ones.
In their comments, most industry stakeholders agreed that the six components were necessary for successful safety and health management programs. Furthermore, some commenters made additional suggestions, such as:
- encouraging the use of safety and health committees;
- reviewing near-miss accidents with miners;
- setting benchmarks for injury and illness reduction and regularly evaluating progress;
- fostering effective communication at all levels;
- providing education along with training;
- creating adaptive and responsive approaches to finding and fixing hazards;
- holding regularly scheduled safety meetings; and
- empowering miners.
During my time as Assistant Secretary, I have traveled extensively, meeting with stakeholders and visiting mine sites throughout the country. During these events, I often hear the same information regarding safety and health management programs that work, in particular, the importance of actively engaging miners and other employees in the development of these programs.
Ensuring that miners are not discouraged from reporting workplace hazards, injuries, or illnesses is critically important to maintaining and improving mine safety and health. The existence of hazards, injuries, and illnesses need to be known if they are to be prevented.
In March 2014, the Department of Labor Inspector General (IG) released the results of an audit examining Part 50 accident and injury and illness reporting. The audit found that some operators have instituted policies and programs that have the effect of discouraging injury and illness reporting. Specifically, the IG recommended that MSHA “develop and implement policy guidance on operator programs relating to the reporting of work-related injuries or illnesses, addressing retaliation against miners for reporting, and encouraging miner reporting of work-related injuries or illnesses.”
When developing safety and health management programs, mine operators should avoid policies or programs that could deter miners from reporting safety and health violations or concerns, accidents, injuries, or illnesses. Examples would include disciplinary programs or bonus programs that tend to deter or dissuade miners from reporting such matters. Depending on the totality of circumstances, such policies or programs may interfere with the rights of miners under the Mine Act.
As we all work together to reduce fatalities and lower injury and illness rates in the mining industry, MSHA strongly encourages mine operators to strengthen existing safety and health management programs or adopt new programs that include the core components listed above. These actions can have a meaningful impact on reducing mining deaths, injuries, and illnesses and thus improve the safety and health of our nation’s miners.