NIOSH Mine Chief:Agency Pivoting Toward Health

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Mine Safety

On Feb. 8, Jessica Kogel, a 25-year veteran of the mining industry, became the associate director for mining at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health with a mandate to expand the department's reach. That mandate includes “new realities for a rapidly evolving industry that is now characterized by deeper and more remote mines, an increase in automation, a younger workforce, and more contractors, among other ongoing and emerging trends,” Kogel said at the time.

Kogel met with Bloomberg BNA reporter Stephen Lee to discuss her department's ongoing work, its plans for the future and how the economic downturn in the coal industry is shaping her department's agenda.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bloomberg BNA:

What’s your top priority right now?

Jessica Kogel:

Our program has traditionally been very strong in doing research around safety, and we're very focused on engineering controls. Going forward, we're going to shift our focus slightly to go more deeply into health, really addressing some of the longer-term occupational health diseases. That's more challenging in some ways, because it requires surveillance and a longer-term view, instead of the immediate safety concerns that happen in the mines. We're very good at that sort of research and addressing those sorts of issues. So a shift in focus will be toward the bigger health questions that are a little bit harder to identify and more difficult to find solutions for.

We're also looking at our overall research portfolio for mine worker safety, around both injury and fatality prevention. Traditionally our program has had a very strong focus on coal, and we will continue focusing on coal, but we're also going to shift to some of the other sectors that we’ve always worked on in the past, but maybe not with the same focus that we’ve had with coal—things like stone, sand and gravel. The aggregates industry is a very important sector in the U.S., and there are many operations throughout the country. Practically every state has some kind of aggregate or stone, sand and gravel operation. So the accident and injury rates in that sector are something we have our eye on.

Bloomberg BNA:

Are there particular health issues your department is going to concentrate on?

Kogel:

One that we’ve worked on for a long time has been black lung disease. That's something we continue to monitor and do surveillance for. There's actually been an uptick. We thought we had that one beat. Silica is another one. Last week I heard something on the radio about South Africa and the lawsuit from miners there being exposed and having long-term health effects. So the ones that we’re already very aware of are the ones we need to continue to solve. Elongated mineral particles—asbestos is in that category—is another one. So I really think it's a matter of continuing to focus on the ones that we've already identified and understanding what the risks are and doing the science.

Bloomberg BNA:

How is the economic downturn in the coal sector affecting the work your department has been doing?

Kogel:

Certainly the fact that the number of workers and the number of mines are decreasing is something that we look at. We also look at the statistics, in terms of fatalities and injury rates, and in 2015 coal had zero fatalities. So I think we've done a really good job of focusing on coal, and that, coupled with the fact that coal is becoming a smaller industry, certainly forces us to think about where we need to be focused in the future. If you look at the injury rate in coal, there’s still work to be done.

So we want to continue focusing on coal, but not at quite the same level. We’ll invest some of the resources that are going toward coal research on some of these other sectors. We’ve got a portfolio of projects and we're going to increase the proportion of research that's done on non-coal sectors going forward, but we're not going to change it dramatically, because coal continues to be a very important part of our energy portfolio. Where it's all going to go in the long term, we don't know, but for our program to be relevant and to address critical needs in miner health and safety, these are the sorts of trends we have to look at and be responsive to.

Bloomberg BNA:

You mentioned the improving safety and health statistics in mines. It sounds like the industry is getting safer and safer, not just in the raw totals, but also in the injury and death rates. How do you explain that?

Kogel:

I think it’s a combination of things. Everything is coming together to create this. With MSHA's increased focus after the 2006 passage of the MINER [Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response] Act, MSHA really came in—and I was, at the time, working in industry, so I experienced it—and really started upping the number of citations they wrote. The whole regulatory environment became much more focused. I saw an evolution that happened within companies. I think companies always desired to do the right thing, but when MSHA started doing that, I think the awareness really increased. And it’s not a great environment to work in, when you have this heavy regulatory aspect to what you’re doing. But it did raise awareness, and it caused companies to become much more educated. Probably, in some senses, that was overdue.

And there are also many leading companies in different sectors. You see in metal and non-metal has always had fairly low accident rates. That’s the sector that I worked in prior to coming to NIOSH. It’s always been a leading sector in health and safety, and that’s where there are a lot of the companies that are thinking proactively and thinking about leading indicators.

I think for workers too, there's been a change in the culture within the industry, and safety has been a high, high priority. I can say that coming from 25 years of being in the industry. At any company that I've ever worked with, safety has been the first thing they talk about. Now we're seeing that in the statistics.

Bloomberg BNA:

Training is such a key part of mine safety law. What has NIOSH done to evaluate the effectiveness of worker training programs?

Kogel:

It's a big part of our program. This goes into all sectors. We're focusing on coal, and a big part of our program has been coal-focused. But if you look at our coal portfolio, we’ve always looked at the very broad spectrum, and that includes training. We have a human factors grant, and we have social scientists that have built a 3-D visualization lab at our Pittsburgh research facility. Much of their work has been directed at exactly this question, because training is so vitally important to what we do. So we do the science around the training and the effectiveness of the training. We also develop training materials and modules so that we can meet all of the MSHA mandates and have very effective training that’s available to mine operators.

Bloomberg BNA:

How applicable are these findings to other sectors? Would sectors like construction profit from what your department is learning about training?

Kogel:

Yes. One of the things that is a real strength of NIOSH is that we focus on mine worker health and safety across all of the major sectors. So within the institute, we've got people who are working in construction and agriculture and every employment sector out there. It provides us a wonderful opportunity to work across NIOSH divisions and leverage all the knowledge, the expertise, and the facilities. We can work collaboratively and share the technology within our individual sectors with other sectors. Since joining NIOSH, that's something I've really been focused on. Construction is an obvious fit. There are similar types of equipment, similar types of exposure if you're talking about dust and crystalline silica, similar potentials for hearing loss because of very loud, noisy equipment. Tunnelling is another one. Fire fighting—we actually have been talking with another NIOSH division about how we can share some of the work we’ve done in training and transfer it to some of the questions that they’re trying to address with firefighter training.

Bloomberg BNA:

Much of NIOSH’s recent funding has revolved around the Sago mine disaster in 2006 and the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2011. To what extent are those events still coloring the work that you’re doing now?

Kogel:

We have a very robust and ongoing extramural program. That is largely where the funding you mentioned is focused—in working with companies, universities and intra-agency government groups. We do technology development, and we fund that through other government agencies as well. After the Sago, Upper Big Branch and other coal-related events, we focused very much on coal. Those events were headline news. Many, many lives were lost. So our focus and our priority was to make sure we put things in place, developed technology and actually transferred that technology into the mines to help prevent future major events. Catastrophic events tend to happen in coal mines, just by the nature of coal mining: how we do it, that environment where you have a potential buildup of methane gas, explosions. You don't tend to get that sort of confluence of events where you have major catastrophes in other types of mining. So that was the focus initially.

But we’ve also long used those funds to do research in other areas. Much of the technology that is developed for coal can be transferred to other mining situations. Underground communication technology can be used in underground metal mining, for example. Some technologies are very specific coal things, like methane buildup; you’re not going to get that in other kinds of mines. But we’re developing sensors to monitor the air quality. That can be used in other mines where you might want to monitor air quality. We’ve developed technologies for mine rescue; we’ve got a snake robot that we just recently completed the development phase of, and we’re transferring it to MSHA. It goes down boreholes and can be used post-accident to go into the mines. It has sensors and videos so you can communicate with trapped miners. That can be used in any kind of mine. Ground control is something that we have to worry about in any kind of mining situation. If it's an underground mine, often times there’s a roof collapse. If it’s an open pit mine, it could be a high wall failure. So we’ve developed technologies to monitor the ability of the ground, or we might develop technologies for keeping the ground in place, reinforcing it, finding better ways to build underground mines. So that's transferable to any kind of mining situation.

Bloomberg BNA:

How involved is NIOSH in MSHA’s pending silica rulemaking?

Kogel:

We're doing a lot of work in silica, and we have been, really, since the 1980s. We continue to develop new monitoring devices. For example, we just developed a coal dust monitoring device, a wearable device, a continuous monitor. And we’re working on developing similar sorts of monitoring devices for silica. So we do the research, we do the science, and we have a close relationship with MSHA. They will use our science and technologies, and that often goes into informing their rules. That's how the process goes, and our job is to make sure that we're providing the fact-based, unbiased information so that they have what they need to make their rules based on good science.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com