By Frederic J. Frommer
WASHINGTON — The number of chronic safety violators among mine operators has sharply fallen in recent years, according to government figures.
According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the number has dropped in response to changes the agency has made to rein in offenders. But, according to the National Mining Association, the industry’s safety program deserves the credit.
The government puts repeat safety offenders on its Pattern of Violations list, which is reserved for mines that pose the greatest risk to the safety and health of miners. A POV designation means that if a federal inspector were to find another significant and substantial violation, an order would be issued to withdraw miners from that area, ceasing operations until the problem is corrected.
Prior to 2010, according to MSHA, no mine had been on that list. But partly in response to the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, MSHA toughened its enforcement that year and began citing mines for POV actions. Since then, seven mines have made the POV list.
A 2010 screening identified 51 chronic violators for further review among mine operators. But for this year’s screening, that number had dropped to 12, according to figures released Thursday. The biggest reduction was in coal mines, which dropped from 42 violators in 2010 to six in 2014.
“For the first time in the history of the Mine Act, mine operators were under the threat of being placed on a POV action if they failed to clean up their act,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health . “That was really never a threat before. We’re not seeing the kind of records that Upper Big Branch and other mines were amassing” anymore.
In the 2010 screening, the worst 12 offenders were cited for 2,050 violations of significant health or safety standards. By this year, that number had fallen to 857.
Main said there was a corresponding reduction in the number of deaths and injuries, noting that for the most recent fiscal year for which numbers are available, ending Sept. 30, 2013, there were record-low fatality and injury rates, as well as the fewest mining deaths, 33. But MSHA also announced in January that fatalities for the 2013 calendar year had increased. There were 41 fatalities, up from 36 the previous calendar year, because of an especially deadly final three months, which claimed the lives of 14 miners.
According to MSHA statistics, 100 percent of mines were inspected in each of the years from 2008 to 2013. which is the most recent from which numbers are available.
Main said there has been a “cultural change” in the mining industry, much of it driven by the agency’s push on POV actions.
But Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said that while his group is pleased with the improvement, the group does not share MSHA’s explanation for those numbers.
“NMA’s own CORESafety program, consisting of best safety practices from around the world and from other industries, was implemented in our biggest member company mines beginning in 2011,” according to an email attributed to Popovich. “I don’t think it’s coincidental that this program coincided with the documented improvement in the numbers MSHA is now showing.”
He added that mines have an incentive to operate safely.
“Our members recognize this because they’ve documented the correlation between safe mines and productive mines,” according to the email.
According to an email attributed to Phil Smith, director of governmental affairs for the United Mine Workers of America, conditions are getting better, especially among mine operators that have a chronic history of poor safety practices.
“The POV rule is proving to be a very useful tool,” according to Smith’s email, “in MSHA’s arsenal to keep miners safer on the job.”