The Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, chaired by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), held a hearing to review mine safety policies with stakeholders representing industry and labor, as well as safety experts. The latest in a series of hearings focused on worker health and safety, the hearing examined current enforcement policies, as well ways to further improve safety in the mining industry.
“As we all know, thousands of miners are employed by an industry that is vitally important to our nation’s homes and businesses. We also know that these men and women work in an environment that is extremely dangerous, where some of the most basic tasks can be life-threatening,” Chairman Walberg said during opening remarks. “Understanding the state of the industry, seeing how current rules are or are not working, and discussing what we can do differently are vital to worker safety.”
Established by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is responsible for enforcing federal mine safety policies. The agency has implemented a number of changes in recent years intended to enhance safety protections.
“Remarkable gains in mine safety have been made over the years, but more remains to be done,” explained Dr. Jeffery Kohler, a professor and chair of Mining Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University. “The goal must be to eliminate fatalities and further reduce injuries.”
Michael Wright, director of Health, Safety, and Environment for the United Steelworkers, echoed the sentiments of other witnesses, saying, “Over the years we’ve had our differences with some MSHA policies and some enforcement actions – or lack of enforcement actions – but the overall impact of the agency has been enormous.” However, he added, “there is plenty of room for improvement. The forty-five families of miners killed last year, and the 25 families of miners killed so far this year, can attest to that.”
One area in need of constant attention is reducing black lung among America’s miners. As Stephen Sanders, an attorney with more than 25 years of experience representing coal miners and their families, noted, “Some mistakenly believe that black lung disease, like many occupational diseases, is a thing of the past. That is absolutely not true. Black lung disease is still very much a problem.”
Witnesses also offered their views on responsible approaches to mine safety.
“Mine operators who improve their safety performance year-after-year recognize the need to go beyond mere conformity with the law. They understand that regulations alone are not sufficient to drive continued improvement,” said Bruce Watzman of the National Mining Association. “It is time for all of us to recognize that culture, leadership, training, and other organizational-behavioral factors significantly influence performance.”
Kohler added that “we should recognize that safety performance is the result of a complex system of organizational, managerial, labor, and technical components, and we must manage it accordingly and involve people from every part of the mining enterprise.”