Citing recent positive changes in safety, MSHA chief Joe Main said the foundation is being laid for better safety performance and an improved safety culture in mining.

“We are seeing new lows in respirable dust levels in coal mines, significant reductions in the number of chronic violators, improved industry regulatory compliance, successful implementation of new standards and, in recent years, the lowest fatal and injury rates in mining history,” Main told attendees at the West Virginia Coal Association’s annual symposium on January 29. 

During recent visits to mines run by Jim Walter Resources, Alpha Natural Resources, and Alliance Resource Partners, Main said he saw “innovative rockdusting of conveyor belt entries to prevent coal dust explosions, state of the art respirable dust controls on longwalls to prevent pneumoconiosis, proximity detection technology on continuous mining machines to protect miners from crushing accidents, innovative and worker friendly roof control systems and well-designed wash down underground coal transfer units to better control coal dust and spillage.” 

The Assistant Secretary noted that much of the improvement has come about over the past five years, a period that coincides with his tenure at the agency. While he credited “MSHA, the mining industry, and others” for the improvement, Main devoted most of his talk to agency initiatives launched on his watch. 

These include the “End Black Lung - Act Now” campaign, a program called “Rules to Live By” focusing on preventing the most common causes of deaths, more aggressive protection of miners who speak out about allegedly unsafe conditions, a Pattern of Violations (POV) enforcement tool aimed at chronic violators, increasing MSHA stakeholder engagement, encouraging mine operators to take more responsibility to find and fix hazards, and improving MSHA enforcement consistency. 

In addition, Main summarized what he referred to as “strategic rulemaking.” Rules now are in place to lower coal miner exposure to respirable dust and require the use of a personal monitoring device that provides respirable dust results in real time, mandate application of a higher percentage of rock dust to prevent coal dust explosions, require coal mine operators to conduct more thorough workplace examinations, and stipulate proximity detection devices on continuous mining machines. An existing POV rule has been updated to close loopholes. Under development is a proposal to extend proximity detection equipment to sectional mining equipment. 

The changes purportedly have brought down the number of enforcement actions and fatalities in the coal sector. Citations and orders issued to coal mine operators have declined from about 96,352 since 2010 to 62,828 in 2014, while there were 16 coal fatalities last year – the lowest “ever recorded in mining history,” Main said. 

Main also took the opportunity to reveal several other initiatives underway at the agency. To improve mine emergency response capabilities, MSHA is nearing completion of what Main called state-of-the-art communication, tracking, mapping, and atmospheric monitoring technologies. MSHA’s website is being modernized to provide new web tools mines can use to monitor compliance with Rule to Live By standards, as well as those included in the coal sector’s workplace examination rule. 

However, more needs to be done, cautioned Main, noting that the 25 fatalities in the metal/non-metal sector in 2014 exceeded the number who died the year before. To that end, MSHA announced that, effective February 2, it would focus attention, including enforcement, on the types of conditions associated with the fatalities and on the associated categories of work. The initiative also will include educational and outreach activities, such as discussions with miners and mine operators by inspectors and MSHA training personnel.