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Tim Burmeister

Tim Burmeister

As the editor of the Mining Quarterly, I hear a lot about safety.

When I go on mine tours, I start out with a safety briefing.

“Every company has core values,” Health & Safety Manager Robert Dechant said at the start of my recent visit to the Robinson Mine. “Some of it is cliché. You have a bunch of lawyers get together and say, ‘What can we say?’ … But we really looked at this quite simply. We want to make sure we don’t hurt anybody. … We don’t even want to have a smashed finger. That’s the level that we’re really trying to take care of our employees.”

Shortly after I started at the Quarterly six months ago, I took the 24-hour MSHA safety training, where I heard a whole lot about safety in two days. One interesting part of the class was hearing from the other people in the class. One man had several stories about scars and health problems he had gathered over a mining career. As I remember one story, one day he was working on a pickup truck quite a ways away from a haul truck when one of the haul truck’s tires blew, and the shrapnel broke bones in his face.

The MSHA class wrapped up with the video “Remember Charlie,” in which Charlie Morecraft talks about the safety shortcuts he took while working at Exxon, and the accident that burned over 50 percent of his body. His descriptions of the pain, the years of rehabilitation, the devastating effects the accident had on his life and his family, and the stories of the other burn victims he met — and the screams — I found very intense.

One of his basic messages: You’re not invulnerable. An accident can happen to you. And if it does, the effects can be overwhelming.

Of course, some people blow the whole message off. Look the “Remember Charlie” video up on YouTube and you’ll see some comments like the couple of ignorant comments from a guy named James Hetfield (who I’m assuming is not the James Hetfield who sings in Metallica).

I’m sure that for a lot of people the MSHA classes are just a tedious annual requirement. But I also think that having people listen to those messages again probably changes lots of behaviors in lots of little ways. At some moment, something triggers in person’s brain synapses, and they decide not to do that, not to take that shortcut. We’ll never know how many accidents, how many injuries have been avoided.

Safety in this issueYou’ll find lots about safety throughout this issue of the Quarterly. The 2019 Nevada Mining Association Safety Award winners are listed on page 20. In the NvMA column on page 78, Joe Riney says that thanks to all the work that has been done on safety over the years, mining is no longer a dangerous industry to work in.

According to a January 2018 article in USA Today, the top five most dangerous jobs in America are logging, fishing, piloting an aircraft, roofing and refuse collection. Mining is not even in the top 25.

In the story about the Turquoise Fever reality show on page 42, the Otteson family says they follow safety regulations as they mine for turquoise, but the nature of what they have to do in order to mine turquoise makes the job inherently dangerous.

We have a story about the Mining Minds podcast on page 13. On that podcast they often talk about safety. In a recent episode, the podcast hosts talked with Jim Hoover, who has worked as an MSHA inspector, and they said that safety and production are not opposed, but actually go together.

In the interview that starts on page 48, Barrick CEO Mark Bristow criticizes the safety record of Barrick and Newmont. He says the employees here have now gone through a refresher. He says Nevada Gold Mines takes safety “very seriously.”

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A history of safety During the MSHA safety class I took six months ago, the instructor talked a little bit about what mining was like in the United States years ago. Some miners were treated like indentured servants, and they were sent off to work without much concern for their health and safety. Children worked on hazardous jobs like picking rocks off of conveyor belts.

If we saw companies today treat employees the way miners were sometimes treated in the past, and if we saw them send children to work on dangerous jobs, a lot of people would be outraged.

Obviously, attitudes about safety have changed from 100 years ago, but it seems that attitudes have continued to change even in more recent years. It seems that people just keep getting more serious about safety.

When MSHA was formed with the passage of the Federal Safety and Health Act of 1977, there were 272 mining fatalities in the U.S. that year. In 2018 there were 27 mining fatalities. Two of those fatalities were in Nevada’s underground mines.

A couple months ago I heard someone say that when they started in mining around 35 years ago, people in the industry talked about safety but they didn’t really want the employees to work safe. They wanted them to produce, and to hide any problems. Now, he said, companies actually mean it when they say they want zero harm.

More recently I heard a younger person say that if they told someone from 15 years ago about all the safety regulations they follow today, the time traveler from the past would find it unbelievable. They would say, “How do you produce?”

When I see a cultural evolution like the continuing change in the attitudes toward safety, I wonder about what have been the root causes of the shift. Do people have a different basic attitude toward human life and well-being? Is a big part of the change the fact that we now have better technology, and we have machines that can do the job, so it would be ridiculous to send children to pick rocks off conveyor belts?

On the other hand, I recently heard someone who believes in the importance of safety also make the comment that in the past, a college student doing summer work might have been sent to work in the mill, and today they’ll be put to work painting handrails.

“I hate to say it, but people aren’t as tough as they used to be,” he said.

He also commented that sometimes the safety card gets pulled so that someone can get out of doing a job.

There does need to be some balance. Sometimes a person maybe should toughen up and do the tough job, but they also need to do all they can to be safe. Because the consequences of that one accident can be terrible.

With the continuing changes in attitudes and the continuing changes in technology, including the introduction of more automation at the mines, the mines can keep moving closer to that goal of zero harm.

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