The first explosion went off at 5:25 am. By 10 pm that evening, three more had rocked a West Virginia coal mine, trapping 99 miners in its rapidly collapsing shafts. Only 21 would ever see the light of day again.
On November 17, 2019, family members of those who perished gathered for the 51st anniversary of the 1968 Farmington Mine disaster that was so devastating it was the catalyst for industry reform, resulting in the enactment of the 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act.
As devastating as the losses were at the Farmington Mine, the sad reality is that in terms of deaths from mining disasters, it doesn’t even crack the top 10.
SAFETY IN MINING: A GLOBAL REVOLUTION
Don’t despair, there is light at the end of the (mine) tunnel.
In the U.S., mining-related deaths have decreased drastically thanks to robust and enforced legislation along with myriad technological advancements helping to keep miners safe.
In the early 20th century, it was typical to see about 1,000 deaths per year in the mining industry; in the 1990s, that number had dropped well below 100 and has fallen even further today.
Fortunately, many of the CEOs in the mining sphere today consider safety the highest priority. It wasn’t always this way. In the early aughts, the then Chairman and CEO of the Massey Energy Company (Massey), Donald Blankenship, famously quipped that his company “[doesn’t] pay attention to the violation count,” when asked to comment on why regulation violations for Massey were almost three times that of its three biggest rivals combined. (Massey was bought out by a rival in 2011 after a disastrous and deadly coal dust explosion was found to have been caused by the company’s production-over-safety culture; Blankenship soon after retired.)
Even China has seen some impressive gains in mining safety over the past decade, with mining deaths falling even as production continues to soar.
But even with all the great progress towards making mining safer it still remains one of, if not the, most dangerous industries in the world. And it’s not only the demands of the job that put workers in peril, but it’s also the locale; this past November, a convoy of workers headed to a Canadian-owned mine in the West African country of Burkina Faso was attacked and 37 people were killed. This isn’t an isolated incident either; as mining happens wherever minerals are present and not where governments are stable, many mining sites place their employees at risk simply because of where they are located.
Yet despite these dangerous conditions, mining remains one of the most profitable industries and for good reason – many of the modern technologies and conveniences we enjoy today are possible because of mining.
MINING INDUSTRY: THE BACKBONE OF MODERN SOCIETY
“Your cell phone, your electric car – none of these would exist without the rare and exotic metals discovered through mining,” explains Brian Edwards, a consultant for the mining industry who previously worked for DuPont as its Global Innovation Mining Manager.
“Battery technology is all based on minerals, so any electronic devices you use in your everyday life, you can thank mining for. Minerals such as potash are essential in modern farming to help grow enough crops to feed our burgeoning population. Mining, very literally, is essential for modern life.”
MANAGING RISK IN MINING
Edwards contends that the biggest issue in mining is risk management.
“Mining is one of the most regulated industries in the world and absolutely everything revolves around risk management. From before a mine is even conceived until decades after it has closed, someone is looking at the risks – environmental, personal, financial – and trying to mitigate those risks.”
Risk management in mining starts well before the first minerals are extracted, even well before the first miners make their inaugural descent down the mine shaft.
A large percentage of the work that goes into a mine is done well before the first hole is dug in the earth.
“Mother Earth isn’t consistent,” cautions Edwards. “After an area has been selected for a mine, and that happens after much research into whether or not it’s likely to produce minerals, that area must undergo extensive testing to see whether or not it’s even able to support a mine, or if it’s likely to collapse. Another consideration is what’s inside the earth – are there gases that will be released that could cause damage, either to the environment or people?
Another consideration is whether there will be environmental repercussions when the mine closes. Each mine has a definite lifespan – typically 10 to 15 years – and mining companies are expected to take responsibility for their mining site and any issues that may arise because of the mining, even decades after the mine has closed. For instance, when asbestos mines closed down, this was before we knew the damage those minerals could cause, companies had no idea that would be an issue.
Yes, there is a lot of money to be made in mining, but there is also a tremendous amount of risk. That’s why I say that the industry really boils down to risk management, that’s the business.”
WHEN PROFITS AND SAFETY COLLIDE
There is a very good reason that mining companies are focused on mitigating damage caused by their activities to the environment and people – and that reason is cold hard cash.
Mining is a capital-intensive industry. Not all mines explored end up producing valuable minerals, and the cost to explore unprofitable mines can be extremely high. As such, companies rely on funds from the investment community, specifically the stock market, to stay in business.
According to Edwards, “money doesn’t flow to mismanaged companies. Only companies with good safety records can attract investors. To succeed in mining, you absolutely cannot have a record of damaging people, the environment, or communities.”
The profitability of mines is also influenced by government actions. In North America, the mining industry is highly regulated, and even though American or Canadian mining companies may be operating in different continents all over the world, those stringent regulations still apply.
In some areas, especially in third world countries, entire communities have sprung up around mine sites as the companies build infrastructure, schools, and provide jobs. Even first world countries such as Canada have seen huge community benefits from mining.
The Chinese government’s crackdown on illegal mines has improved safety and reduced accidental deaths by staggering amounts.
Even Brazil, notoriously lax on environmental and safety standards, came down hard earlier this year on its biggest mining company, Vale, after a deluge of sludge from a tailing dam covered an employee cafeteria built recklessly below the site, killing over 350 people.
But governments can also work against safety. In South Africa, a misguided attempt to increase black ownership of companies resulted in policies that actually ended up hurting the ability of South African mining companies to raise money and tanked the region’s global attractiveness for mining as a whole.
Indeed, many believe that President Trump’s “pro-miner” campaign promises are anything but. In his attempt to “revive” the coal industry, he risks easing regulations that helped improve safety and save lives. Repealing those regulations might grow the coal industry temporarily but would cause irreparable environmental damage and put miners’ lives at serious risk.
THE FUTURE OF SAFETY IN MINING
Technology is helping shape the future of mining by taking many of the most dangerous tasks and automating them. Now, instead of sending people down to explore mines or run dangerous equipment, smart vehicles can drive themselves into the mineshaft and smart equipment can function autonomously.
According to Edwards, several of the world’s biggest mining companies are, “making impressive strides towards building completely autonomous mines.”
Of course, creating safe workspaces is about more than removing hazards. In many industries, it requires a complete reset of mindsets and cultures to enact positive, long-lasting change.
One recent study by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that applying behavioral safety in the mining industry led to substantial improvements in safety. The reason being, by engaging employees in the process and empowering them to create a safer environment for themselves, they felt they had ownership in the project and were intrinsically motivated to pursue and maintain safer work practices.
The study also found that open, honest communication between managers and workers about safety increased the chances that implemented safety practices would be practiced and maintained.
In a similar study, McKinsey & Company found five prevailing mindsets that led to unsafe behavior: Fear of blame: “If I report and incident, I’ll be punished”; Disempowerment: “Safety is someone else’s job”; Trade-off: “Safe means less productive”; Fatalism: “Injuries are part of the job”; and Complacency: “Cultural change takes time”.
Correcting these mindsets and creating a positive, safety-focused work environment requires the commitment and action of management.
It’s not enough for management to say the company wants a safe environment, management must lead by example and action, helping to break through those widely-help mindsets.
HAND PROTECTION FOR THE MINING INDUSTRY
Working in one of the world’s most dangerous industries, not only must miners take on the risk of serious bodily harm or death daily as part of the job, but also face exposure to myriad other hazards.
In terms of hand injuries, miners are at a heightened risk for pinched fingers, one of the industry’s most common injuries.
Much like McKinsey & Company found in their study, fatalism plays a huge role with miners simply accepting pinch and crush injuries as “part of the job.”
As leaders in innovative hand protection, it’s no surprise that Superior Glove was one of the first to market with a solution for finger pinches.
We call it PinchGuard technology, protection for your fingertips. Acting much like steel-toed boots or a hard hat, gloves featuring PinchGuard technology embrace fingertips in a protective capsule that helps mitigate injury from pinches and crushes.
Check out our full line-up of PinchGuard gloves below. Start your free trial today and see how PinchGuard will change the way you think about pinch and crush injuries!
Brian Edwards is the owner of Bear Island Business Solutions Inc. (BIBS) and consults on innovation in the mining industry.