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Moving beyond the regulatory model in mine safety

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World Coal,

Bruce Watzman, National Mining Association, US.

When is ‘good’ just not good enough? One example is when an industry shows it has significantly reduced on-the-job fatalities but has not eliminated them.

That’s the situation US coal mining finds itself in today. The industry has taken up the goal of zero fatalities with a new determination since a tragic accident claimed the lives of 29 miners in 2010, prompting greater introspection and new thinking about how best to protect miners on the job.

So when the US coal industry closed out last year with the fewest coal mine fatalities in its history, it reacted with appreciation but muted satisfaction. The trend of steady improvement over the years has certainly been welcome. But the record low coal mine fatalities in 2014 were still 16 too many.

Today there are two competing narratives about what contributed most to the decline in fatalities last year – and what may give us the best chance for better mine safety. As we set our course to zero fatalities, weighing the merits of each is important for moving from today’s ‘good’ record to a ‘perfect’ one. Both narratives have value, but the National Mining Association (NMA) believes only one will guide us to where we need to be.

On one hand, there is the current statutory model for mine safety. It dictates operator compliance with specific rules and standards applicable to all mines. The US regulatory body, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), has enthusiastically promoted this approach after increasing the number and frequency of inspections and implementing new targeted enforcement initiatives.

Without question, regulatory oversight of safety practices in mining operations is essential to build a floor of expectations for all operators. But the inherent limitations of a top-down, command-and-control, one-size-fits-all approach are plain. More frequent inspections and heavier fines do not in themselves lead to safety improvements. Research shows that the correlation is weak, especially when inspectors focus on low-risk work areas or issue fines for trivial infractions. Too often this is how regulatory agencies measure effectiveness; it is not the way to measure what truly matters – the number of injuries and fatalities.

The alternate approach industry favors relies on reason rather than coercion. We call it CORESafety®, a voluntary initiative the NMA launched in 2011 that is steadily gaining adherents across the mining industry. CORESafety allows companies to adapt and tailor to specific operations a systems approach for managing safety and health in order to drive continuous performance improvement.

It begins with an analysis of where fatalities are most likely to occur, then addresses those areas with the level of resource commensurate to the risk. It provides the tools and best practices designed specifically to manage that risk and to prevent accidents from occurring in the first place.

By seeding a safety culture in every operation beginning with senior leadership and carrying forward onto each shift, CORESafety offers the best opportunity for achieving our goal of zero fatalities and a 50% reduction in the injury rate within five years. That goal is unlikely to be met with an exclusive reliance on a regulatory model that, in recent decades, has seen safety improvements plateau.

Today, US mining companies face a Hobson’s choice: rely on often outdated, condition-driven regulations to ensure a safe work place, or adapt proactive approaches that are not recognised by, and sometimes are even at odds with, regulatory requirements. The result may be a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished predicament that leads to enforcement actions.

But new and significant improvements won’t come about by relying on old thinking. Reducing injuries and eliminating fatalities will increasingly mean breaking with old habits and practices. Even though CORESafety was not developed with the expectation of replacing the regulatory model, it was developed because the regulatory model is not good enough.

It comes as no surprise to learn that mining stakeholders in other developed countries are moving beyond the regulatory model. They, like the NMA, have recognised that new approaches are needed to drive more satisfactory safety outcomes.

Written by Bruce Watzman. Edited by

About the author: Bruce Watzman is senior vice president of regulatory affairs at the National Mining Association.

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