2016 marks the 10th anniversary of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER Act), legislation that was the result of three separate tragedies that claimed the lives of 19 miners in 2006. Mining has always been a dangerous industry, and there is more risk now than ever in terms of the sheer size of equipment and operations. We're reaching new depths - literally - yet despite that, mine fatalities have been steadily in decline over the last century and in rapid decline in the last 40 or so years. This is a direct result of legislation and regulations passed to create safer working environments. So how did we get here and why is safety so important?
A Brief History
Over 100 years ago, rules for mine safety were simple, mostly because safety rules were pretty scarce. Historically, owners had the final say in mine safety - and considering their vested interest in the success and profitability of their mine, most owners weren't too keen to make safety rules that could negatively impact their profits. In 1891, Congress threw in a game changer by passing modest legislation establishing minimum ventilation requirements in underground mines and prohibiting the employment of children under age 12, no doubt sending many a mine owner into cardiac arrest at the time.
On the whole, most agreed that these were necessary regulations to ensure the safety of the miners. But after a decade exceeding 2,000 fatalities per year, Congress established the Bureau of Mines within the Department of the Interior in 1910. The Bureau was charged with conducting research in the coal mining industry, with an end goal of reducing implemented the first federal regulations for mine safety in 1947. Since then, regulations have been updated and tweaked - though the MINER Act was the first significant piece of legislation since the 1970s.
Breaker Boys in the 1880s in Illinois.
Why is Safety Important?
A hugely important part of keeping mines and operations safe is training for the miners. When only a few people are cognizant of safety rules, it can be very difficult to keep track of safe mining and working conditions in a big operation. However, if each miner at an operation knows what to look for, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions can be spotted and addressed much more quickly. This is part of the reason MSHA requires that each U.S. operation have an approved plan for miner training that must include:
- 40 hours of basic safety and health training for new miners with no underground mining experience (BEFORE they start working underground)
- 24 hours of basic safety and health training for new miners with no surface mining experience (BEFORE they start mining)
- 8 hours of refresher safety and health training for all miners every year
- safety and health task training for miners assigned new tasks
This training should give a peace of mind to both mining operations and their miners. For the miners, they know their employer is invested in their safety and doing all that is possible to prepare them for emergency situations. This makes for good morale. For the operators, aside from the feel good aspect of keeping fellow humans safe and out of danger and the boosted morale on site, there are other tangible benefits of safety onsite.
Bottom line: following safety regulations and keeping operations safe saves money in the long run. It cuts down on the obvious money pit (workers compensation claims), as well as legal teams, public relations for bad press, and new equipment - all of which cost a pretty penny. Perhaps most importantly, safety keeps operations running efficiently and productively. (For instance, since 1970 coal production has increased 62% while fatal injuries have decreased by 92%.) The extra time spent on training, making sure equipment is safe, and going through all the safety motions for each step is nothing compared to being completely shut down when dealing with a disaster, or general lost-time due to injury.
It is evident that the more conscious approach to safety is beneficial to all parties involved. With the regulations set up and enforced by MSHA, training programs implemented by operations, and modern equipment designed with safety in mind, it may even be possible to cut out mining fatalaties altogether. Fingers crossed!