CONSOL CEO asks government to take a positve role in mine safety

In testimony yesterday before the Utah Mine Safety Commission meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, CONSOL Energy President and CEO J. Brett Harvey called on government and industry to work together to eliminate all coal mining accidents. “We can no longer run our mines with an unspoken assumption that a certain number of accidents are simply inherent in our business,” Harvey told the Commission. “You want that number to be zero, and the public wants the number to be zero. And we must all make it our business to see that this happens.”

The Utah Mine Safety Commission was assembled by Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., in response to the Crandall Canyon mine disaster. It has been charged with “the task of evaluating Utah’s role in mine safety, accident prevention and accident response.”

Harvey, a native of Utah and a fourth-generation coal miner, said that effective mine safety must be a combination of several components, including 1) the law and compliance; 2) the technology/safety interface; and 3) the culture of safety. “Clearly, this Commission will consider changes or additions to Utah law with regard to mine safety and make recommendations to the legislature,” explained Harvey. “As you do, let me offer several observations:

“First, do not recommend changes to law or regulation based solely on what can be learned from Crandall Canyon,” Harvey noted. “There are more than 700 underground mines in the US, and every one is unique.” He said the lessons learned from a single accident may provide only limited instruction for the broader industry.

“Second, don’t assume that safety laws and safety are synonymous,” he contended. “Laws, by themselves, are not enough to guarantee safety.” He noted that all states have numerous laws regarding highway safety, yet highway accidents continue to occur.

“Third, don’t assume that compliance with the law and achievement of safety goals necessarily go hand in hand.” Based on research in the last six months, Harvey said CONSOL discovered that 90% of the company’s safety supervisors’ time is spent on compliance issues such as escorting inspectors, with little time left to focus on accident prevention activities such as observing employees at their work sites.

“Fourth, I have seen little evidence to convince me that two agencies are better than one in administering safety laws at a single site — particularly if the standards being administered by each agency are different from one another,” he said. He noted that mine fatalities and accidents occur in states with and states without their own safety agency.

Nevertheless, Harvey added that, “compliance with the law is an obligation of every company, every mine manager and every employee.” He said that failure to comply with the law was unacceptable job performance. “However, if we limit ourselves, as an industry, only to complying with the law, we will not eliminate accidents. Compliance with the law is only one element in the safety triad.”

A second, according to Harvey, is the technology/safety interface. Effective technology, properly applied, can be an important component of an overall effort to eliminate accidents, he said, listing CO monitoring systems, automatic temporary roof supports, coal bed degasification systems and applications of digital technology in mining as important advances that have improved safety.

However, Harvey offered a caveat. “While being receptive to technology- driven shifts in the safety paradigm, I am not suggesting that we always be first-adopters. Like all businesses, mining companies keep a close eye on costs,” he said, “and we are understandably reluctant to invest millions of dollars in technologies that are unproven.”

Harvey said there needs to be a balanced approach to technology. “It would be a mistake for government, in the emotional aftermath of a mine tragedy, to mandate unproven technologies in the name of ‘doing something.’ But, at the same time, companies should not use the fact that a technology is still emerging as an excuse to do nothing.”

Harvey completed the safety triad model by pointing out its most important component: the human element. He said companies must create a culture of safety.

“At CONSOL Energy, our commitment is to a culture where safety trumps production, where it trumps profits, where it trumps all other rules, policies or procedures,” he said. “Certainly, it includes a discussion of the role of the individual and the need for each employee to make safety a core value in their lives.” Harvey said individual work safety is a condition of employment at CONSOL Energy. “We hold every employee — salaried and hourly alike — responsible for working safely.”

Harvey said there is room for government to be a part of the culture of safety. “I certainly understand that a proper function of government is to enforce the law,” he said. “What I am asking is whether there is a role for government beyond that of antagonist or opponent. Can the government be more than just a policeman?” Harvey asked the Commission to consider how the government might acknowledge, reward and encourage safe work.

While US mine fatalities were reduced from 1,068 in 1975 to 22 in 2005, Harvey believes that the industry must never be satisfied until all accidents and fatalities are eliminated. He said it is unfortunate that the high-profile nature of the recent mine accidents obscures the fact that total injury rates for US coal mining, based on MSHA records dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, are as low as they have ever been. “In fact, the coal industry has a better overall safety record than many other industries or sectors of the U.S. economy and we are far ahead of countries such as China, where the coal mine fatality rate is 13 PER DAY.” said Harvey.

In concluding his testimony, Harvey became philosophical in describing his response to a question by industry observers interested in what he hopes his legacy at CONSOL will be. “Without hesitation, my answer is the same every time. I say that I want to be remembered as part of the generation of miners who eliminated accidents in coal mines,” said Harvey.