Miners work in a dynamic environment that few people outside of the industry can truly relate to. As such, reports of mining disasters have a way of captivating the public, who can easily empathize with the images of communities huddled together sharing both concern and hopeful optimism as they wait helplessly for news from the mine.
In terms of safety, mining has come to be defined by such tragedies. Places like Monongah, Farmington, Sunshine and Sago will forever be embedded in our national conscience by the horrible loss of life that they have come to represent.
Those and other devastating catastrophes have led many Americans to conclude that our mining industries are throwbacks to an earlier, sadder time in industrial history. That mines run as outlaw operations, directed by uncaring kingpins who are bent on generating profits on the backs of an ignorant workforce. They believe that safety programs are unsophisticated, if they exist at all, and that any real improvements to working conditions have resulted from some heated battle between management and labor. Even worse, many believe that the mines are regulated by an inept, powerless agency that has been corrupted through an overemphasized familiarity with the operators they are supposed to be regulating.
Ignorance often breeds skepticism when confronted with tragedy.
There is a tremendous opportunity for safety professionals from other industries who are willing to look beyond these stereotypes to discover the reality of mine safety. In its own way, mining has developed a culture that has driven remarkable advancements in workplace conditions, as well as in worker education. The result of these advancements can be seen in a dramatic and steady decrease in fatalities, injuries and illnesses within the industry.
Over the past 30 years, mining fatalities have declined by more than 79%; currently, both the manufacturing and construction industries have injury rates that are 26% higher than mining.
Faced with those statistics, one can chose to refute, excuse or otherwise explain away the numbers; or else embrace them and look for elements that could have driven those commendable improvements. By keeping an open mind, safety professionals from outside the industry can bear witness to an intriguing case study that could well help them in their own applications.
The core element that set mining apart from other occupations in America is the public's adamant rejection to fatalistic contentment with regard to safety performance. Miners have benefited from the high standards that have been placed on the industry through a series of tough legislative requirements that were predicated by overwhelming public appeal.
In response to a series of mine disasters, the American government took action in the form of safety legislation targeted to prevent a recurrence of the accident and to provide assurances that mine operators would actively work to improve the working conditions for their employees.