Safety as a Value

By: Bill Reid
Managing Editor


Dave Lauriski

Coal Leader: We’re with Dave Lauriski who is Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health in the Department of Labor. We certainly appreciate you talking to readers of Coal Leader again, Dave. This year is the 92nd Anniversary of the National Mine Rescue Competition. What are your thoughts today?

Dave Lauriski: Well we are very encouraged by this year’s contest and the fact that we have a few more teams than we had a few years ago. However, we still need to get mine rescue on the top of the list of some of the companies and they need to understand the importance of these competitions and the importance mine rescue teams play in this country. I’m very impressed by this year’s contest and we’ve had a lot of positive comments from the teams that participated here. It’s a special time, I think, for the people in the coal industry, because there’s such a camaraderie that exists between those teams and team members themselves. They get to see each other only a few times a year or in some cases once every other year and it’s fun to watch how they intermingle, how they work with each other, and how they encourage each other. So I’ve had a great week and this is something that we are going to hopefully build upon. Today a new event for me is this preshift contest. I think it has some real potential, because we get people here that come from companies that don’t have mine rescue teams, small companies, who get to come and compete on a national level and so it’s very encouraging and we are very excited about it.

Coal Leader: It’s been a little over two years since you were appointed to your present position. Can you tell us some of the progress that has been made within the last two years under your direction?

Dave Lauriski: Well I think we have made tremendous progress. Fatalities have dropped by 21% from where they were in 2000. Our rate of injuries are at the lowest levels they have ever been. All injury rates dropped by 13% in the two-year period. We see a correlation between the serious injuries and the serious violations we’re finding drop. Our enforcement levels are still very much a part of what we do. In 2001 we issued more violations in coal than we had the year before, although that shouldn’t be our target. Our target should be, as we’ve been around a long time, to be getting better. I also think that while we have made a lot of progress, we still have a long way to go. When you look at what’s happening this year, we have some real work to do as an industry and as an agency because the kinds of fatalities we are seeing this year are not typical coal mine fatalities. We are seeing things happening today that are what I would call General Safety 101. We have people that have lost their lives because they failed to lock and tag equipment out. We had an incident where some miners lost their lives because they were parked in front of a haul truck. We have seen more supervisors lose their lives this year than we have for a very long time. That’s sending a pretty strong message to us that we’ve got a situation from a training perspective that we have got to get on top of. The one thing about this business is you can never become complacent and be satisfied with where you are because it changes so rapidly. We’re working very hard and I’m very proud of this agency but our resolve has to get tougher. There is no question about that. 

Coal Leader: We’ll talk about some of these accidents in more detail in a moment, but generally what are the biggest challenges in bringing safety and health to the nation’s coal mines?

Dave Lauriski: One challenge is trying to change the culture that has existed for 25 years, not only an agency culture, but an industry culture. What I mean by that is keeping the barriers down between industry, labor, and MSHA and trying to work cooperatively together. I think we’ve made great strides there. This agency has now signed four alliance agreements with trade associations and professional organizations and that’s never been done before. Beyond that is the challenge of what I just talked about. How do we get miners to take safety as a value? How do they begin to understand and how do companies begin to understand that they have to have safety as a core value of their company and of their life? If we don’t do that then we are not going to make the kind of progress that we need to make and that is sending every miner home to their family everyday, and not having anybody lose their life in this industry or get hurt, but we’re not there. For me that is the biggest challenge, trying to keep that message, keep our awareness level highand still be able to do our job. We’ve done a couple of initiatives this year to try to keep the awareness level up. On the one-year anniversary of Quecreek, we had what we call our first ever-National Coal Mine Safety Awareness Campaign. I announced it on the anniversary of Quecreek and we spent two weeks talking with miners and mine operators about the importance of safety. Of course we still have to do our enforcement job as well and when we do those kind of outreaches, we have great success. But we can’t do it everyday. Somebody has got to take that on and make safety a value in their own workplace and when we can reach that point then the biggest hurdle is overcome.

Coal Leader: Let’s talk about two of the categories of fatal accidents, one is moving machinery, and the second is electrical. Could you tell us some of the initiatives in the industry with regard to these categories.

Dave Lauriski: Well, one in particular for moving machinery is the proximity detector that we’re working with Massey Energy to put on remotely controlled continuous miners, because of the pinch point between the boom and the rib and we are seeing some pretty good success with that. Sometimes we improve technology and we don’t see some of the other issues that are created and the remote control miners are a great example of that. We did it for safety but we created a safety problem and now we are trying to address that. We are also continuing to work on haul trucks with cameras and proximity detectors. We haven’t perfected that yet, but we are working with some companies and hopefully we’ll make some improvements in that regard. From the electrical standpoint, our biggest concern is getting the awareness level back up because we have seen, as I said, fatalities this year that are basic kinds of things. Had basic precautions been taken, people would be home with their families today. So we are placing greater emphasis on our electrical inspections and electrical safety awareness. 

Coal Leader: You referred earlier to training and the need for further training. How do you separate the role of MSHA and the role of the coal companies in training. Is it a collaborative role?

Dave Lauriski: Yes, absolutely. That is part of our function. One of the things we have tried to bring in the last two years to the agency is a balanced approach as to what we do and using all the tools the Mines Act provides. You are aware of our “Triangle of Success” and what we use there is Enforcement, Education, Training, and Technical Support, along with Compliance Assistance all components of what we try to achieve. Part of our function should be education and training. It doesn’t matter whether you work in our education-training department or whether you work in our enforcement group, part of our responsibility is to provide training to miners. We also expect that from coal mine operators and we should see that from miners themselves helping one another. If miners see someone else doing something that eventually could create a hazard or is unsafe, we are asking them to speak up and talk to their fellow miner about not having that happen and to watch out for one another. So those are the kind of things that we are really trying to emphasize along with the other things that we do. I think we have made some tremendous progress, but again we’ve got a lot of work to do. 

Coal Leader: You’ve just attended the anniversary of the Quecreek rescue. What were the lessons learned from Quecreek?

Dave Lauriski: We’ve had a couple of symposiums to learn about new technology and you have attended one of those. We have also been awarded monies from Congress, $10 million, to be used toward developing some technologies as well as digitizing maps. We are working very closely with the states on the map issue but we are also getting ready to allot some of this money for research and development. We are looking at a number of things and everything from electromagnetic detections, to use of seismic equipment, to long hole drilling to horizon control and robotics. We are going through a list of about 70 proposals that we have received and we’ll be awarding some of this money in the very near future. Certainly, the lesson that we’ve learned is that you can’t bank on information being accurate. If you have any doubts in your mind, you have to take time and stop and do some additional research. In the aftermath of Quecreek we have two success stories that could have been potentially not success stories. In one, miners as they were mining saw something a little bit unusual. They were getting water where they shouldn’t have gotten water. They knew they were close to an old mine that was full of water, so they stopped. They went and relooked at their maps and their maps showed that they were supposed to be about 400 feet away They weren’t satisfied so they went and they researched some more and they went to the Bureau of Land Management and found out that they were only 80 feet away from 19 million gallons of water that was above them, so I think that we have raised the awareness level. We need to figure out how to determine where these old sites are, and we have been working hard at that and we’ve got some money now that is going to help us move in that direction. We’ll provide map central repositories where people can go and get accurate information. We have a lot of resources dedicated to that.

Coal Leader: Quecreek also brought great attention once again to the coal mining industry and reminded people that coal is still mined in this country to produce electrical energy, about half of the electricity in fact. My final question to you Dave is how do you see the future of coal?

Dave Lauriski: I think coal has a very bright future. I think that Quecreek was able to elevate people’s knowledge about our business, but I also think that the recent blackouts are going to have some impact on coal. There are a lot of things that I think could give coal a bright future. This business has been around a long time and I think it’s going to be here for a long time. It’s an up and down business but I think it has a future. We are just going to continue to get better at what we do. The coal industry faces many challenges, but I think it has a good future.

Coal Leader: Well Dave, once again it’s a pleasure to spend time with you and we appreciate you talking to readers of Coal Leader. We’d like to wish you and MSHA every success in bringing greater safety and health to the nation’s coal mines. Thank you for talking to us.

Dave Lauriski: Thanks Bill, I appreciate it. You are always a pleasure to talk to and you help us get the message out and that is what is important to us. I would ask your readers to take some time and talk to their folks and get their minds on safety. Make it a part of the core value of your business and we’ll make some tremendous progress. Let’s send the miners home to their families at the end of every day. That is our obligation to help you do that and we stand ready to do that.

Coal Leader: Thank you very much. cl



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