Industry needs safer workplace now: Harvey

CONSOL head J Brett Harvey spoke last week to an industry crowd for the Utah Mining Association's 92nd annual meeting, taking the geographical opportunity to call on the industry to immediately
Industry needs safer workplace now: Harvey Industry needs safer workplace now: Harvey Industry needs safer workplace now: Harvey Industry needs safer workplace now: Harvey Industry needs safer workplace now: Harvey

Chris Harvie of Datem Moore, right, is welcomed to the company by chief executive John Moore.

Donna Schmidt

"When I first accepted [the] invitation to speak, I had no idea that I would be speaking in the aftermath of another dramatic mining accident, and certainly not one here in Utah," Harvey said to the group.

"Yet here we are again, as an industry, trying to deal with the aftershocks of a mine accident that captured nationwide attention and that created very mixed emotions in most Americans."

Gone should be the little changes made over time to improve mine safety in the nation's operations, he said, as the full-scale effort must include a paradigm shift for zero tolerance.

"We need to change the paradigm and we need to change it now," he said.

"What industry must change is our incremental approach to safety improvement because it creates an unintended tolerance to accidents. We need to get to zero."

Harvey said that he was saddened like the rest of the world for the loss of life, but also frustrated by the fact that it happened in the first place.

"How our industry deals with the issue of mine safety going forward may very well determine the future of the industry. Not just mining underground, but the future of coal in our nation's energy mix," he said.

Harvey mentioned another factor that plays a part in the future of coal mining, public perspective, which can impact the industry's success in many ways, economically and socially.

"The media coverage of the coal industry and the tone of the discussion among legislators and regulators would have you believe that the US coal industry had made no progress in safety for the last 100 years," he said.

"That people still died by the thousands every year. That coal mining was dark, dirty and dangerous".

"We are shackled by the media not just to these recent mine accidents, but to all the mine tragedies of the last 100 years," he added.

"The result has been that our progress in mine safety in the last 50 years seems always clouded by the events of the past."

Harvey said in the case of Crandall Canyon, much like Sago, public pressure could create the feeling of the need to "do something" with legislation, which he noted has been behind much of the newer laws soon to be implemented and already in effect.

He called some of those laws, especially ones related to the MINER Act, "ill-conceived" because of their origination "a sense of urgency by lawmakers" and said they "probably contributed little to improving safety in the mines".

"And now that the accident at Crandall Canyon has occurred, we will be faced with more Congressional hearings and the possibility that Congress will pass a MINER Act II before we have had time to fully implement MINER Act I," he added.

However, he does concur with the potential for further revision of existing federal laws.

"If a change truly advances safety in the mine, I support it," he said.

If that is to happen, Harvey proclaimed, a four-pronged approach absolutely must be followed by Congress beforehand.

"If Congress intends to legislate, let me suggest several things that need to be done," he said.

"First, they must see the mining environment for themselves and get a firsthand understanding of the big picture.

"They need to understand that every mine is different,” he noted, adding that every mine is different through geology and inherent risks associated with mining methods.

"They need to understand that generalising a provision of law for all mines from events at a single mine will not always yield the expected results or advance the cause of safety."

Second, Harvey said, is to resist the urge to 'bully' federal mining officials to push more violations on mines.

"The current mine inspection system is an important tool in the drive to make mines as safe as possible," he said.

"If operators have conditions that can result in unsafe situations, such situations should be noted and corrected immediately."

Harvey said the third point is for lawmakers to understand that this industry carries with it an intense attitude.

"Congress should understand that safety is not about big mines or little mines, union-free mines or union-represented, eastern mines or western mines. Safety is primarily about attitude," he said.

"Attitude of the management of the company; attitude of the managers at the mine; and the attitude of the work force. And attitude is much harder to address through legislation."

Communications technology, he added, and putting forth a purposeful focus, is the fourth key.

"Congress has mandated the deployment of communications technology in the mine," he said.

"That mandate, however, may need to be coupled with incentives to equipment manufacturers to develop better systems for the mine environment."

Harvey said that he has a belief in safety's importance, and it is that belief by everyone that will help bring the industry forward and, in time, help close the "reputation-reality gap" between mining and the public.

"I recognise that expecting coal to be a zero-accident industry might be seen as tilting at windmills," Harvey said.

"But I believe that if we commit ourselves to this goal, we can reach zero. It is within our grasp."