Mining fatalities have fallen slightly in the most recent fiscal year, but one day this summer was a stark reminder of how dangerous the job can be.
On August 3, three miners in three states died in accidents. Joe Main, assistant secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, described this as “a wake-up call for everybody,”
“There is more work to do. We really need to get everybody on board to get it fixed,” he said at an interview during a visit to Charlotte, NC, last week.
Last year, the mining and quarry industry posted the most fatalities since 2007, including the June 2014 death of a supervisor at a quarry near Pageland, SC Chris Melton, 41, bled to death within minutes when a pump he was working on exploded.
North Carolina has 198 active mines – up about 28 percent since 2000 and the fourth most of any state. South Carolina has 82 quarries and non-coal mines, up 26 percent from 2000, data shows.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration reported this week that there were 23 fatalities nationwide in quarries and other non-coal mines in the year ended September 30, down from 29 in the previous fiscal year. Partly because of mine closures, coal mines saw the fewest fatalities in a fiscal year ever – 14, down from 18 in the previous year.
In an effort to reduce fatalities, MSHA has been stepping up enforcement, increasing training for inspectors and educating the industry on potential hazards. To boost staff, Main said he has moved about 15 to 25 coal inspectors over to the division that oversees quarries. That adds to about 315 inspectors already in that division.
Main regularly travels the country, speaking about safety during meetings with company officials, labor unions and trade groups. Last week, he spoke at an annual stakeholders meeting held in Charlotte that drew industry representatives from around the southeast.
“We have seen a lot of cooperation,” Main said. “I have to give the industry credit. They have been getting the message out. They are working with us.”
Jay Stem, executive director of the North Carolina Aggregates Association, said MSHA officials are making an effort to point out potential problems when they make inspection visits, not just hand out violations. In addition to reporting fatalities, companies have also been encouraged to report “near-misses” as a way to educate the industry about hazards to avoid before they lead to accidents.
“Their focus nationwide is communication,” said Stem, whose group sponsored last week’s meeting in Charlotte. “If we can communicate and get away from that adversarial relationship that will really improve safety.”
The trend in quarry deaths had been improving until the Aug. 3 fatalities in North Dakota, Nevada and Virginia. There haven’t been any more deaths in these types of mines since then, but Main remains wary. October is the deadliest month of the year for quarries and non-coal mines, with 51 fatalities since 2000.
One reason for this spike, Main said, is that October is the time of year when quarries, especially in northern states, are packing up equipment for the winter. That means employees are handling tasks that aren’t part of their daily routine.