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MSHA chief: Tackle safety, health issues to attract top talent to mining

Despite a focus on deregulation in many parts of the federal government, David Zatezalo, the assistant secretary of labor leading the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, is thinking about new rules and initiatives to further improve miner health and safety.

At a Feb. 26 industry event, Zatezalo reiterated plans to streamline the agency and target common causes of miner fatalities. After the speech, the former coal executive turned regulator said that while he would not get ahead of the president on his regulatory agenda, he has not seen any resistance to his efforts so far.

"President Trump is very interested in people's safety," Zatezalo said in an interview. "He doesn't want to see people killed. What is he interested in is 'does it really make sense?' That it's doable."

If mining companies or equipment manufacturers are not completely behind providing a safe and healthy work environment, they should leave the industry, Zatezalo added. Attracting the "best and brightest" workforce to the mining industry will depend on advancing safety technology.

"Millennials today are not attracted to places where they eat a lot of dust and develop lung disease," Zatezalo told attendees at a conference sponsored by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration and the Colorado Mining Association.

A resurgence in lung diseases caused by respirable dust exposure has caused controversy around the mining sector in recent years. While MSHA lowered the dust exposure limits during the Obama administration, Zatezalo said there is about a 10-year latency period between dust exposures and symptoms of black lung disease, so the impacts of the rule might not become clear for several years.

Some in the coal industry resisted the dust rule, but the sector has achieved a high rate of compliance with the standard since its implementation. Zatezalo has repeatedly indicated that while the agency is studying the rule, he has no plans to loosen restrictions on respirable dust exposure.

MSHA also remains focused on going after unpaid health and safety violations at U.S. coal operations. Under his watch, the agency has collected about $6.9 million from operators who had been ignoring fines for violations, Zatezalo said, but about $30 million remains. He said the agency aims to whittle the outstanding debt to $25 million this year.

The agency continues to explore relatively simple, inexpensive solutions to problems that are common causes of mining fatalities, such as failure to wear seat belts, Zatezalo said.

"Enforcement doesn't get it done," he said, noting that MSHA has written thousands of citations over the issue. "It's time for technology to come to the rescue. If I have to ding, ring, chime and irritate people to death, I guess that's what I'll do."

Another top cause of mining deaths is larger vehicles running into smaller ones, which Zatezalo blamed in part on blind spots created by bad design.

He showed the audience a presentation of a large piece of mining equipment from the driver's point of view, displaying what appeared to be an empty landscape obscured by parts of the cockpit. Zooming out from the picture to a third-party perspective showed that six employees on foot, several passenger vehicles and other mining equipment in the driver's proximity were hidden from the operator's view.

"You cannot design a piece of equipment with those big blind spots and not do anything about it," Zatezalo said. "I think it's time for new laws to say that equipment design has to include the area around it. None of you would have a car that you couldn't see anything out of it. Why do we put up with it on mobile equipment?"