The PoV notice is one of MSHA’s toughest enforcement actions and, according to the agency, it is reserved for mines that pose the greatest risk to the safety and health of miners. No mine had ever been placed on a PoV notice in the history of the Mine Act until 2010, when Main directed the implementation of sweeping reforms to POV provisions. The reforms were driven in part by shortcomings MSHA identified in the aftermath of the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion.

“Data show that these reforms, in combination with other agency efforts, such as the impact inspection program, have led to significant reductions in the universe of chronic violators, prompted operators with troubled compliance records to improve their safety and health programs, and resulted in much safer mines in our nation,” Main said.

Main’s effort to root out chronic violators has had an impact. Removing the bad apples improves the lot overall. Similarly, compliance with the many facets of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER Act) has also improved the industry’s safety performance directly through improved working conditions or indirectly by forcing smaller operations that could not comply out of business. With the exception of 2010, the coal industry has seen a decrease in fatalities.

While one fatality is one too many, the rate of incidence among miners might be a better gauge of the industry’s performance than the fatality rate. Or, would it? This month Coal Age publishes a report from researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that discusses hazard reporting among the nation’s miners (See Safety, p. 34). It found that miners are not reporting lost-time accidents and it tries to explain why. This article should be required reading for anyone truly concerned about safety, and especially those involved with implementing incentive programs.

In the report, a safety expert explains that an indicator of a positive safety culture is the extent to which miners feel free to raise concerns without the fear of retaliation or reprisal. Many programs rely on miners to identify problems before they become significant events. NIOSH researchers surveyed more than 1,350 miners at five mining operations and the results may surprise Coal Age readers. Spoiler alert: More than half had reservations about bringing up problems and concerns to management.

The NIOSH report also delves into incentive plans among miners and the psychological and social pressures attached to safety-related bonus programs. One of the conclusions from the report is that raising safety issues and reporting accidents takes time, and the time it takes to communicate these issues competes directly with total compensation.

As an industry, the U.S. coal business has come a long way as far as safety performance. This report offers valuable insight into why miners make some of the choices they do. It’s saddening, but hopefully coal operators can use this to improve safety reporting. Most coal operators strive to do the right thing and operate as safely as possible. As for the rest, Joe Main and his federal inspectors have another fast-track program for improvement.

Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-in-Chief