Monday, March 14, 2011

An Historic First, No Miners Died In Pennsylvania On the Job During 2010. Why? Lessons for Gas Drilling?

Coal has been mined for centuries in Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvanai miners died on the job every year since the first ton was produced until 2010.  Last year was the first year in history that no Pennsylvania coal miner died on the job: A wonderful accomplishment for all involved with the coal industry and its regulation.

Why did the deadly, tragic coal mining history change in 2010? Does this good coal mining news offer any lessons for the gas drilling industry where everyone agrees safety and environmental performance must improve?

Some would say simply "good fortune" produced no mining deaths in 2010. It would be folly and extreme hubris to say that no good fortune was involved, but the prepared and the safe are luckier than the unprepared and the unsafe.

The chief reason for no mining deaths in 2010 reflects the growth of a strong, consistent, universal culture of safety within the Pennsylvania coal mining industry: the coal companies, the mining unions, and the miners themselves.  How did this culture of safety take root? 

Pennsylvania's culture of safety did not appear overnight and is the product of much work by many over decades.  But an especially powerful, recent catalyst was the near fatal accident at Quecreek in 2002 that ended with a miraculous rescue of 9 miners who had been trapped underground by a flood of water for days.  That near tragedy taught important lessons, but more preciously it galvinized and fueled the political leadership, the state regulators, the union, miners, and the mining companies to redouble efforts to prevent mining accidents and deaths. 

 The redoubling of safety efforts led to the passage of new mine safety legislation by the General Assembly and Governor Rendell.  As a result, in January 2009,  the Pennsylvania Mine Safety Board, a new 7-person body composed of 3 United Mine Worker and 3 coal company representatives plus the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection met for the first time.  I served as the initial Chair.

This new body put an added spotlight on safety.  That helped to reinforce the great work done by the state coal mining inspectors that work at DEP.  And strong rules and enforcement of those rules create incentives for safe operations and serve as a deterrent to unsafe practices.

While government regulation builds or undercuts a culture of safety, government has big limits.   Inspectors are not in the mines at all hours.  They don't do the mining.  Mining companies and their employees are and do.  Only a culture of safety  within those companies and employees can create safe operations.

Fostered by government, a strong, growing culture of safety in Pennsylvania's coal mining industry made 2010 the first year ever that Pennsylvania had no mining deaths.  The companies and the miners and how they do their work,.putting safety first, really and truly first, whether or not an inspector is in the mine, made 2010 a special year for coal mining in Pennsylvania.

Can a culture of safe operations be fostered by government and then take root in the Pennsylvania gas drilling industry where 5 workers died in 2009-2010?

It can and must.

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