PITTSBURGH - Changes made to laws and specifications in United States mines have improved safety significantly, a Mine Safety and Health Administration official said Wednesday.
During an MSHA seminar in Pittsburgh, Joseph Main, assistant secretary of labor for the administration, said in the two years since he took over the position prior to the Upper Big Branch Mine accident, a renewed focus on employee safety and response has been implemented. He said that accident forced the entire industry to pay closer attention to its weaknesses and find new ways to combat them.
"The impact that tragedy had on the families of the miners lost and the mining community is not measurable," he said. "There has been an intense examination of that tragedy, and MSHA and the mining industry have undergone significant change as we have sought to find and fix deficiencies in mine safety and health. MSHA's extensive investigation of that tragedy identified a workplace culture promoted by the operator that valued production over safety, including practices that intimidated and disrespected workers and fostered and encouraged non-compliance."
Main said while a majority of mines do adhere to safety regulations, there are many that do not. In an effort to change that trend, MSHA has implemented changes to its Pattern of Violation program. Since changing that approach, Main said the number of citations and orders issued has dropped from 171,018 in 2012 to 157,678 in 2011.
Additionally, a final rule on examinations in underground mines goes into effect in August, mandating mines to correct violation of ventilation, methane, roof control, combustible materials, rock dust and other standards. Main said these issues have been identified as key causes of potential tragedies. He added 37 miners died in work-related accidents in 2011 and while that number is still high, it was an improvement over the 71 in 2010, which includes the 29 killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine accident.
"As low as the fatality numbers have come in recent years, we all know that one death is one too many and that mining deaths are preventable," he said, adding that in 1977, the total number of mining deaths was 273.
Main said MSHA also takes into account miner concerns and has focused on the well-being of workers. He said more than anything, many miners express their concerns that they do not have a voice in the workplace, which MSHA hopes is an opinion that will soon change.
"We want to give them a better opportunity to raise concerns about health and safety conditions and let us know if something needs fixed," he said.