Mining Professors Oppose Mine Safety Bill

A group of 11 “academic experts in mine safety and health” sent a letter today to the leadership of the House Education and Labor Committee urging them to withdraw legislation (HR 2768 and HR 2769) on miners’ safety and health. The authors of the letter say that “now is not the right time to pursue” further improvements for miners.

Signers of the letters include several chairs of mining engineering departments, such as professor Larry Grayson, who offered just days ago a similar dire warning about more mine safety protections in an op-ed called Mine Mania (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 7/22/07). He said:

many “good operators [have taken] voluntary steps to improve mine safety. …Once adopted, these voluntary measures undoubtedly will improve the safety of coal miners. …additional legislation now would not only intensify the chaos in the coal fields…”

Chaos in the coal fields? I’m not sure I’m ready to fall for this sky-is-falling prediction.

These university professors say they “were thankful for the passage of the MINER Act,” a bill signed into law in June 2006, but if additional requirements are placed on mine operators it would “dramatically disrupt the very core of the industry.” They say that mining companies:

“are not being afforded the opportunity to entrench the necessary safety culture in the mines. They must ultimately ensure that many of the MINER Act provisions will be institutionalized in practice at their mines. Thus far, they have been fully occupied with the nuts-and-bolts of complying with the act…”

Let’s refresh our memories on the “nuts-and-bolts” of the 2006 MINER Act. Underground coal mine operators had to:

  • submit to MSHA (by 8/15/06) a written accident response plan;
  • include provisions in the plan to coordinate with mine rescue teams and local emergency response personnel;
  • provide a back-up means of communication for miners to communicate with the surface, such as a secondary telephone line, (in case the primary means is destroyed in an explosion or roof fall);
  • have in place a tracking system, if commercially available and applicable to the individual mine, so that miners can be located easily during a mine rescue;
  • store underground an additional supply of breathing apparatus to give trapped miners a total of four hours of safe air; and
  • train miners on how to use the breathing apparatus and how to swap an air-depleted device to a fresh one.

Under the law, all of these provisions should already be in place at underground coal mines. How can these professors argue that mine operators are still “fully occupied with the nuts-and-bolts” of the act? Where is their evidence that more requirements forced upon operators will cause chaos in the coal fields?*

When I look at HR 2768 and HR 2769 here’s what I see: a number of additional requirements directed at underground coal operators and some others for all mine operators. (According to MSHA data, in the U.S. there are about 600 underground coal and 1,375 surface coal mines in the country, and 240 underground and 12,000 surface metal and non-metal mines.)

Under the terms of the bill, underground coal operators would:

  • Have to install emergency refuge chambers;
  • Have to replace conveyor belts if they don’t meet flame resistance requirements;
  • Be prohibited from ventilating the working areas of a mine with belt air (which led to the disaster at the Alma/Aracoma mine which killed two coal miners.)

The bill also:

  • Clarifies the term “pattern of violation” to assist inspectors in citing mine operators who have a history of repeat violations;
  • Increases the minimum penalty from $60 to $500, establishes a penalty of at least $10,000 for an operator who retaliates against a miner for complaining about safety, and strengthens MSHA’s authority to collect overdue fines; and,
  • Sets a more protective exposure limits for respirable coal dust, silica, and asbestos, and require MSHA to replace permissible exposure limits which date back to 1973, with limits recommended by NIOSH.

Now, I certainly expect the big mining industry associations, like the National Mining Association and the Kentucky Coal Association, to oppose these bills. But why mining engineering professors? You’d think that more attention on mine safety and health practices and systems would provide opportunities for their students and graduates.

I can’t really figure out the professors’ views on this matter. When a representative of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) writes a letter or testifies before Congress about a mine safety matter, it’s obvious that they are representing the interests of their union members. Likewise for a group like the National Mining Association—we know they are representing their members’ opinions. But when university professors or academic scientists offer their views, it’s not always clear whether they have some other interests at stake, including financial or contractual interests.

As my colleague David Michaels PhD, MPH has written (and here) about the biomedical community’s concern about potential conflicts of interest which led the editors of the leading medical journals to establish strict policies for the disclosure of financial relationships. This allows people reading scientific articles to judge for themselves whether the author’s views have been influenced by those financial ties. Dr. Michaels has proposed “equal treatment” regulatory science, so lawmakers and agency officials can make similiar assessments about comments or testimony offered during a rulemaking. (Read Michaels’ Disclosure in Regulatory Science)

The letter sent by the 11 “academic experts in mine safety and health” notes:

“This letter represents our position on the issues as mine safety and health experts, and does not necessarily represent the position of our respective institutions.”

I respectfully invite them also to provide to Chairman Miller (D-CA) and Ranking Member McKeon (R-CA) an attachment which discloses their financial ties or other conflicts of interest.

For me, it was also troubling to see that two of the letter’s signers are former senior NIOSH officials. Professor Larry Grayson was the former director of NIOSH’s mine safety and health research program and Professor John Hill was the Director of the Spokane Research Lab. These individuals should know first hand that miners are still developing black lung disease and silicosis, have no protections for asbestos exposure, and need a much improved mine rescue system. All of these hazards are addressed by this new legislation to which they are opposed.

At a recent congressional hearing, the current director of NIOSH’s mine health and safety research division, Jeff Kohler PhD, said that his staff ends each day by asking “what did I do for miners today?” I wish more people who provide technical advice and expertise on mining safety and health would adopt the same slogan.

Note: In the months following passage of the 2006 MINER Act, MSHA did move forward with some additional protections for underground coal miners. A requirement to improve the construction and maintenance of seals, is one such initiative, but rightly so. MSHA acknowledged that if more stringent requirements

“It is reasonable to assume that if the emergency regulation had been in effect, all 17 of these miners’ lives might have been saved.” (Read more here)

Comments

  1. #1 Christina Morgan
    July 26, 2007

    I have looked at the materials also and am confused about the dramatic warnings in the letter and in Professor Grayson’s editorial. It sounds to me like these new pieces of legislation complement– not complicate– the emphasis on safety set forth in the 2006 act. I have no doubt that mining companies whose mines weren’t up to par before the MINER Act are under pressure to “catch up” with safety requirements. But why let them get away with going half-way? If the new legislation makes important additions to the requirements put forth in the MINER Act, then we should support that legislation. Why put the brakes on actions that could prevent future tragedies? Do you know of any responses written by other mine safety specialists?

  2. #2 Dennis O'Dell
    July 27, 2007

    I find it hard to believe that anyone in the mining industry would be against providing a means to improve safety. I have heard comments from some of the industry folks that there is no need to act, they say that based on this year’s fatalities, the industry is back on track…I ask you, is twenty-four (24) mining fatalities (9 coal/15 M/NM) so far this year acceptable? Does anyone think the family members of these 24 miners who have died believe that the industry is back on track?

    I heard comments from the industry and mining professors that it is too early to act. Do the math, 1977 to 2006 equals 29 years since any major changes had been made to improve miners’ health safety and training, and the changes that came about last year, as with the original 1969 Act, was motivated by the blood of our miners…should we have to wait another 29 years and let more miners die, or should we be, as this new legislation suggests, proactive and prevent more deaths and injuries.

    Industry said that this legislation will harm small mine operators. It’s time that Congress and mine enforcement agencies quit buying into such nonsense. Mining laws need to be applied to all mine operators, large and small. It’s time to level the playing field and give all miners the same level of protection no matter the size of the mine or number of employees an operator has on its payroll.

    I read the newspaper article of Dr. Larry Graysons statement where he said; “Complying with the MINER Act is not the only challenge the industry faces. The mine tragedies last year also spurred many good operators to take voluntary steps to improve mine safety. Many of these steps were recommended by an independent Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission.” “Once adopted, these voluntary measures undoubtedly will improve the safety of coal miners beyond the level prescribed by the MINER Act, thereby setting the high standard of safety performance desired by good people throughout the industry. Additional legislation now would not only intensify the chaos in the coal fields, but also would stifle incentives to adopt these voluntary steps, which are essential for a truly new paradigm of mine safety based on prevention and risk management”.

    The problem with this statement is that the steps and measures are on a voluntary basis by some of the more reputable, or as he put it “good operators”. This also relies on the use of “risk management” that we are learning is not the best tool provided to protecting miners, and should never be allowed as a means to replace regulatory enforcement by our State and Federal agencies. Others, or the bad actors/operators, are doing nothing. The only way that protection will be afforded across the board is through enforceable regulations such as those written in the proposed S-Miner Act.
    And as far as the University professor’s stating that it would be a burden on the industry and the regulators to move forward with any new regulations outside of the MINER Act, what about the burden of the miners who have and continue to die or the family members left behind because of inadequate safety provisions and mandatory regulations? I propose to you that the burden that may be placed on coal operators does not even come close to that. I would invite these professors to join me with my brothers and sisters underground for a few days work to see if they still take the attitude they have with the letter they submitted to Congress.

    In 1969, coal operators cried to Congress, that if they were placed under the standards introduced in the 1969 Mine Act, the industry would fold. Yet we are still here in 2007, safer than we were prior to 1969. In a day and age when we rely on coal to supply the majority of our Nation’s energy demands so that we are not dependent upon other countries resources, we need to continue to improve our safety record so that we can reach our goal of zero accidents and zero fatalities.

    I would like to invite those who oppose the S-MINER Act to meet face to face with myself and our members to tell us why they believe “now is not the right time to pursue”

  3. #3 R. Larry Grayson
    July 28, 2007

    I, too, was a coal miner, a production foreman, an engineer at two different mines (continuous mining and longwall types), and a superintendent of a UMWA affiliated mine. I had great relationships with the miners whose lives I protected to the best of my ability. More than that, they were my friends and ‘brothers’, a relationship that was founded on mutual trust and looking out for each other. We had to do our work to best of our abilities, since the conditions and situations in mines change sometimes quickly. It is an often dangerous environment that requires utmost diligence in checking conditions, doing all work, including inspections, thoroughly, and then executing necessary remedial activities very well. It takes excellent mine safety professionals (MSHA and state inspectors, fire bosses, company managers, safety committeemen and each miner) to keep everyone as safe as possible at all times.

    Over the past year and one half, we (mine safety experts) have tried to find the best ways to achieve zero fatalities and zero serious injuries in our nation’s mines – this is truly the goal of all. Congress acted to curb disasters in underground coal mines by passing the MINER Act, and the many provisions will eventually empower significant achievement of its goals. No reasonable mine safety expert will disagree with the need for the MINER Act.

    Ultimately the basic causes of most fatalities and serious injuries as well as the tragic events which occurred in 2006 are 1) inadequate enforcement oversight at the mine level (state and federal), 2) inadequate awareness and analysis of high-risk situations in the mines, 3) inconsistent safety management at some mines, and 4) sometimes outright lawlessness. All of these problems were manifested in last year’s tragedies.

    In reality, mine operators are responsible for the safety and health of their workers, and the vast majority do a good job of protecting them. The operators who do not should be targeted by a safety protection system which drives them out of business – clear and simple. However, new laws and rules will not make bad operators – who are responsible for the vast majority of the pain and suffering of our miners – become good operators. Instead their bad safety cultures and behaviors will persist. We’ve seen it time and time again, even after passage of new laws.

    Mechanisms have existed for decades to target and enforce bad operators, and now the mechanisms have been reinforced by several MINER Act provisions. We have a huge opportunity at this juncture to shut down bad operators and save lives. Now good operators, MSHA, and all other stakeholders must drive hard to ensure that no bad operators, which can easily be discovered with existing enforcement tools, continue in operation. We also have an obligation to not let known bad operators back into the industry, which should be a joint effort by MSHA and state enforcement agencies. Let’s do it.

    In the report of the Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission, which I chaired, a strong message emphasized the need to change the safety culture in the underground coal industry. It embraced systematic analysis of major risks employees face, taking action to mitigate or eliminate them, and going beyond compliance with the law to get it done. Over decades, the mentality (and culture) that has been cultivated through reactive approaches to mine safety, where the focus is simply minimally complying with regulations, is unfortunately one that doesn’t pursue safety excellence. A new paradigm must be followed to reach the higher mine-safety goals we all want to achieve (zero, zero).

    There are hundreds of highly safe mines in the underground coal industry, founded on the same relationships I noted above for my former mine. There are many, many dedicated safety professionals involved in ensuring the high performance of these operations. Essentially, in most of those mines, the safety culture has changed; it focuses on prevention and dedicated diligence in pursuing every task, by every person in the operation. These are the safety leaders whose work must be emulated by all safety professionals nationwide.

    At present all mine safety professionals are extremely busy, along with the miners, in trying to complete work in fulfillment of the MINER Act. The amount of work being done is massive. When I talk about the ‘nuts and bolts’ in complying with the MINER Act provisions (devil IS in the details here), I mean all of this ardent work, which must be done thoroughly and systematically. If all of that work was done once and completely without interference, then we would be progressing well toward meeting the MINER Act requirements. However, this is NOT the case. We have conflicting requirements on some provisions between MSHA and some states; we have important studies that must be completed to form a sound, scientific basis for implementation of others; we have Emergency Response Plans that are continually undergoing revision because of frequent, nearly bi-monthly changes; specifications for some provisions are fuzzy at best (look at the breathable air provisions); some provisions are not practical for many mining conditions (rescue chambes in 30-inch coal seams); etc. In my opinion, I was not exaggerating when I pointed to chaos in underground coal mines. Many issues are not yet sorted out, so that we can achieve the very important requirements of the MINER Act in a reasonable time frame. There are techical issues as well as procedural ones. Most importantly, these MINER Act provisions must be done extremely well, or the price will be paid with more blood of miners. We cannot allow that to happen.

    Congress’ pursuit of broad new mine safety legislation at this time, I truly believe, will disrupt the high-priority MINER Act work that must be accomplished as quickly and completely as possible. I believe also that by bringing a dedicated cadre of mine safety professionals into deliberations on any new legislation, the law will be greatly informed by their best-practice experiences and wisdom.

    In this way, any new laws will not only address our continuing ‘black lung’ problems and other issues being addressed by the S-MINER Act, but also address the essential elements I mentioned above that are necessary to achieve the ultimate goals of zero fatalities and zero serious injuries. I believe it is imperative that the all mine safety professionals come together now to change the fundamental culture in mine safety, focus hard on driving bad operators out of business, and allow only good operators to carry the huge effort of providing coal to our society’s growing demand for electric power. Only in this way will a much-needed paradigm shift in mine safety be realized.

    I have always had the greatest love and admiration for coal miners, particularly since that is where I started my own career. When in NIOSH, as well as when I was on the job in coal mines, I did everything I could to protects miners, and my own crew and employees. My heart is in the right place, and I, too, wish for all the unresolved safety and health issues to be dealt with as quickly as possible – but with the benefit of a well-informed process that will address existing fundamental weaknesses, too. We can do that in the next legislation, but we will only half-do what really needs to be done thoroughly. This may be our last chance for another 20 or 30 years to do honestly and completely what will truly protect our miners lives.

    I apologize for taking so long to explain my rationale. As you know, an op-ed piece or a letter to a Congressional committee does not allow one to give this level of detail.

  4. #4 R. Larry Grayson
    July 29, 2007

    I realize that, in this forum, I should address some of the misrepresentations or integrity-related statements made by Ms. Morforton in the initial posting on this topic. First of all, instead of writing a letter to Chairman Miller (D-CA) and Ranking Member McKeon (R-CA) disclosing any financial ties or other conflicts of interest, I will do it publicly here. I am not ashamed that I essentially live from paycheck to paycheck at this time in my life, and that fact alone over the years has allowed me to remain independent of decision-making in all positions I have had. My independence and value of personal integrity are also the reasons why it was important to me that the Mining Safety Technology and Training Commission was independent of NMA, even though the organization graciously covered all travel costs and other direct expenses for the meetings for commission members.

    The only accrued monies I have are in TIAA-CREF, which accumulated at West Virginia University for retirement purposes. TIAA-CREF, as most academics know, is managed by the organization, and any stocks are in a portfolio wholly determined by the organization. I don’t know what stocks are in the portfolio. I have no other stock holdings in any company. I have approximately $125 in a savings account – that’s all. I just sold my house in Rolla, MO, and I netted $30,000. I have not yet found a home in State College, PA. I do own one automobile outright, and gave a 1993 Subaru away to a student when I left the University of Missouri-Rolla. I am eligible for retirement pensions from University of Missouri-Rolla (spent only 7 years total there), TIAA-CREF in six more years, and eventually from Penn State University, if I stay at least three years.

    Regarding conflict of interest, I have not consulted for a coal company since before I joined NIOSH in 1997. Obviously I did not have any conflicts of interest when I was hired by NIOSH. This past year I did consult for a company that got approval of its rescue chamber in West Virginia, which basically describes my position on using rescue chambers in coal mines. While in NIOSH, I obviously filed a disclosure statement in each of my three years there.

    Addressing a first-paragraph statement made by Ms. Monforton, the professors’ letter did say that “now is not the right time to pursue” new legislation – for all the reasons I detailed in my previous blog entry. We did not, and will never say that “further improvements for miners” are not needed – a clear misrepresentation by Ms. Monforton.

    The other significant misrepresentation that Ms. Monforton presented in her initial blog statement was that “if additional requirements are placed on mine operators it would ‘dramatically disrupt the very core of the industry.’” What we were clearly indicating by the context of the letter was that still urgent work needs to be done to complete the very important requirements of the MINER Act thoroughly, and that PEOPLE (miners, mine safety professionals, federal and state agents, etc.) will be dramatically disrupted by new legislation at this time. In my previous blog entry I also acknowledged that there is very important information needed from an array of mine safety experts in order to make the next legislation much more significant in addressing fundamental weaknesses impacting achievement of desired safety performances as well as persistent safety and health problems.

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