By Bruce Watzman and Luke Popovich

Can the U.S. mining industry achieve its long-stated goal of zero fatalities? If so, what will it take to achieve it? These questions need to be openly and honestly discussed, and now is not too soon.  The reason is simple: mine safety performance, while improving, appears mired in a trough. Annual improvement followed by annual decline has become more the rule than the exception.

All can agree that U.S. mines have made significant progress in safety performance over the last four decades. Yet the stalled decline in fatality numbers, the industry’s report card of its success or failure, is unacceptable to all. In fact, the recent plateau in performance has led some to question whether the U.S. industry will achieve zero fatalities by relying solely on the current framework, regulations and enforcement strategy.

Recall these were codified in the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (Mine Act). That law, a landmark in its day, combined coal, metal and non-metal mines under one law; transferred enforcement to the Department of Labor; and retained separate health and safety standards for coal mining. And it was effective. In the year preceding passage, 493 miners lost their lives. In the following two years, 382 and 394 miners, respectively, lost their lives on the job.

Of course, looked at from this perspective, the 42 fatalities mining suffered last year is a dramatic improvement. But looked at from the goal of zero fatalities, 42 lost lives is 42 too many. Alarmingly, that also marked an increase over 2012.  In fact, in the five-year period 2009-2013, mining lost 44 people on the job, on average each year.  

That may be a tenfold reduction over 1976-1978, but it’s still far too many given the flood of regulations, guidelines and enforcement protocols that MSHA has developed since passage of the original mine safety law, the 1969 Coal Act. Nor does the most recent five-year record encourage confidence that current approaches will yield significant further improvements, let alone achieve the long-sought goal shared by all.

The current safety plateau should prompt questions about our 44-year reliance on a command-and-control, condition-driven enforcement model. Has this approach reached the point of diminishing returns? Why are fatalities rising at a time of ever-increasing enforcement featuring impact inspections and pattern of violations notices?

These are two of the questions a CEO-led task force considered in 2011 as the National Mining Association (NMA) sought to identify a better safety paradigm to the current regulatory regime. The result was CORESafety, a safety and health framework that endorses a management system approach to improve safety and health performance. By shifting from a command-and-control regulatory approach to a risk-based systems approach built on CORESafety’s Plan-Do-Check-Act model, NMA is beginning to see, among the companies using this approach, some signs of real progress toward the program’s goal of achieving zero fatalities and a 50% reduction in the rate of injuries in U.S. mining within five years.

Today U.S. mining companies face a Hobson’s choice.  Either comply with often outdated, condition-driven regulations that are not sufficient to ensure a safe workplace, or adopt proactive approaches that are not recognized by regulatory requirements, and may even be at odds with them, possibly subjecting the operator to enforcement actions.

This is the predicament that led mining stakeholders in other developed countries to recognize the need for a new model to drive continuous improvement in mine safety. Hopefully, U.S. mining stakeholders will recognize this necessity and partake in a similar discussion.

Bruce Watzman is the National Mining Association’s senior vice president for regulatory affairs. Luke Popovich is a spokesperson for the NMA, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.