The Promise and Limitations of Data on Mine Safety and Health.
By Brian Hendrix
While I wouldn’t describe 2022 as a great year for the mining industry, it beat 2021 in a number of important ways. First, we put another year between us and the pandemic. Time heals all, I hope, so I’ll put that in the win column.
Second, the safety and health of our miners continues to improve. When I started my legal career in 1999, there were 90 fatalities in mining. Last year, there were 29. To be sure, that’s 29 more than the goal, but it is eight fewer than the total for 2021.
Moreover, it marks a return to the sixth period between 2015 and 2020 when the total never hit 30 and the average was 28. I’ll walk through the various metrics in more detail below, but my goal here is to explore how MSHA and other stakeholders use or misuse these metrics.
First, the metrics. I’ve covered the fatality numbers, but what about the fatality rate? We’re looking at a fairly large, very diverse industry, so rates tell or should tell us more than the numbers. MSHA hasn’t released the final, official number yet, but it should end up around 0.0110. The average between 2015 and 2020 was 0.0101, with a high of 0.0117 in 2020 and a low of 0.0095 in 2019.
The story on the all-injury rate is slightly different, but also better. We’re waiting for MSHA’s official tally for 2022, but it should beat 2021. The rate in 2021 was 1.92. Still below 2, but ever so slightly higher than the 2020 rate.
Until 2021, the all-injury rate had declined every year, starting from at least 2006 when it was 3.64 and ending in 2020 at 1.85. Over that 15-year period, the average was 2.36, so 2021 was well below that.
At a minimum, we can use the above data to describe what’s happened in the past. We can use it to evaluate our performance, and it clearly shows that we’ve made tremendous progress toward our goal of zero. We’re not where we want to be, but we continue to improve, to head in the right direction, and that’s been the case for many years.
What more can we learn from this data? Can we use it for diagnostic purposes? Would analysis of this data tell us why we haven’t reached zero? Why the all-injury rate in 2021 ticked up 0.07 to 1.92 from 1.85 from 2021? Why there were 46 fatalities in 2014 and 29 in 2015? Why there were 29 fatalities in 2020 and 37 in 2021? What happened between 2014 and 2015? What happened between 2021 and 2022?
Without more, my answer to all of these questions is “No.” You’d include all of the above data in an diagnostic analysis, but they would not be sufficient.
Moreover, this data certainly isn’t sufficient for a predictive or a prescriptive analysis. We see the trends in the data; they are clear, even obvious. However, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Past performance may be indicative or suggestive, but it is no guarantee. In late 2014, I doubt that anyone predicted that the number of fatalities would drop by 37% by the end of 2015. The data would not have supported such a prediction.
Of course, if we don’t have enough data (or the right data) to tell us why something happened or to predict what will happen, we certainly don’t have enough data to tell us what we can do to prevent it from happening. Prescriptive analytics requires a great deal more data or information.
Lots of Data
To put it simply, using data to diagnose, predict and then prescribe actions to prevent or affect what you’re aiming to prevent or affect requires a lot of data and information. No doubt, MSHA and other stakeholders do collect data, there’s a tremendous amount of data out there, and we do (and should) use the data to evaluate our performance. If we want to use it for other purposes – to diagnose, predict and prescribe – we’ll need more and need to understand what it represents.
To wit, this data represents X number of specific events (fatalities) at roughly the same number of mines. For 2022, X equaled 29, and involved 29 mines.
That is 29 mines out of over 12,000. The mines MSHA inspects every year employ roughly 300,000 people in the United States who work roughly half a billion man-hours annually.
“Mines” is a category that includes wildly different types of operations, e.g., quarries, underground stone mines, cement plants, an alumina refinery, underground coal mines, surface copper mines, dredging operations, underground salt mines, etc.
The operations MSHA regulates as “mines” are also spread across the country. Many counties in the United States have at least one mine, e.g., a stone quarry or a sand and gravel pit.
Also included are a wide range of business entities, from single proprietor, “mom and pop” outfits operating a one, very small surface pit to very sophisticated, publicly traded, multi-national corporations operating dozens mines and mills in the United States and around the world.
Keeping all of the above in mind, if the number of fatalities increases from one year to the next and if 40% to 50% of the total involved powered haulage, will a focus on powered haulage safety reduce the number of fatalities? The right answer to that question is “I don’t know.”
Recall that we’re dealing with a relatively small number of events and mines. N=29 (or x=29) in our example. “Powered haulage” is a very broad category, the involvement of powered haulage in 40% to 50% of the fatalities in a given year really doesn’t tell me much and I’d need to know what “focus on powered haulage safety” means or looks like.
If MSHA spends more time inspecting powered haulage this year as compared to last or issues more citations for violations related to powered haulage, I would not predict that will cause the number of powered haulage fatalities will fall. The data does not establish that more enforcement results in fewer fatalities.
The bottom line here is that the data above shows that 2022 was a better year, from a safety and health standpoint, than 2021. We’ve made a lot of progress, and we’re trend is heading in the right direction.
To understand exactly why, to predict what will happen with some certainty and to make informed decisions about how best to actually reach our goals, we’ll need more data and devote more time and resources to our analysis of it.
Brian Hendrix is a partner at Husch Blackwell LLP. As a member of the Energy & Natural Resources group, he advises clients on environmental, health and safety law, with a focus on litigation, incident investigations, enforcement defense and regulatory compliance counseling. He can be reached at [email protected].