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Mining Safety and Health Research at NIOSH: Reviews of Research Programs of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 5 Progress in Targeting New Research Areas The committee’s second charge is to assess the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Mining Program’s progress in targeting new research in areas of occupational safety and health most relevant to future improvements in workplace protection. Guidelines provided by the Framework Committee suggest evaluating the relevance of current research and the targeting of new research areas most relevant to future needs. Chapter 2 describes Mining Program procedures for establishing strategic and intermediate goals and project selection. Relevance of current research is addressed programmatically in Chapter 4 and in greater detail by strategic research area in Part II of this report. This chapter focuses on the Mining Program’s targeting of new research and must be viewed in the context of the conditions that influence the research agenda. Mining conditions in the future (e.g., geography, geology, mine size, technology, organization, workforce) will differ from those of the present. An informed assessment of future health and safety issues is required to ensure current research remains relevant in the immediate future and that near-future research priorities target anticipated longer-term concerns. The committee assessed the potential evolution of current technologies and considered how the Mining Program prepares itself for the future. The committee reviewed a recent study by RAND (Peterson et al., 2001) that summarizes confidential interviews with representatives of 58 mining companies, equipment manufacturers, research institutions, and others associated with the mining industry. According to the study, the priorities for major technological trends were (1) information and communication
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Mining Safety and Health Research at NIOSH: Reviews of Research Programs of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health technologies; (2) remote control and automation; (3) operations and maintenance to improve performance and availability of equipment; and (4) new technologies for unit operations, such as the size of buckets and truck capacities in hauling and loading. Interviewees discussed the critical role of workers and the management and organization of mining facilities as well as the importance of outsourcing, safety through training, and empowering rank-and-file workers and upgrading their roles in problem solving. Concerns expressed included issues associated with the aging workforce, the lack of skilled workers, and the need to increase the multidisciplinary and critical thinking skills of miners in preparation for future mining technologies. The committee shares these concerns. The committee also reviewed a study by the National Research Council (NRC, 2002) that describes possible future technological developments and associated health, safety, and environmental issues in mining. The study considered how new technologies such as in situ and solution mining, automated systems, and larger equipment and systems may affect working conditions. The committee agrees with the report finding that new technologies, including computer-based monitoring and control, have the potential for improving health and safety, but these same technologies may result in unforeseen hazards, especially if used inappropriately. New hazards are inadequately identified, and known hazards are not avoided because of inadequate monitoring and/or control. The introduction of new equipment and systems in the workplace, mining in virgin areas, and the infusion of new workers all have the potential to create hazards. Adequate engineering controls and a knowledgeable workforce are prerequisites for a safe work environment. Although, to a large extent, the Mining Program does research relevant to the present and future mining industry, the program does not have the annual discretionary funds required to start large or risky projects necessary to address the needs of the future. The program may receive additional funding for specific research such as a recent congressional appropriation of $10 million for critical disaster response technologies in oxygen supply, refuge chambers, and communication and tracking (Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Hurricane Recovery, 2006, P.L. 109-234, § 7010).1 Resources should be allocated appropriately to allow the Mining Program to prepare for emerging issues in addition to addressing current issues. Flexibility needs to be built into the mining program to respond more rapidly to needs dictated by current events (as in response to accidents) or in looking at paradigm-changing approaches to reduce health and safety risks. 1 See also http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/mineract/emergencysupplementalappropriation.htm [accessed March 5, 2007].
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Mining Safety and Health Research at NIOSH: Reviews of Research Programs of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health STRATEGIC GOALS After reviewing the strategic and intermediate goals of the Mining Program’s seven strategic research areas (see Part II, Chapters 8-14), the committee observes that program strategic goals are most often established in response to circumstances. Such evolutionary responses are driven by workplace incidents, new legislation, response to specific requests by stakeholders, or other circumstances. Given the NIOSH mission and resource limitations, this goal selection process in understandable, although the result is a research portfolio with a major focus on coal mining and large operations (NIOSH, 2005a). The Mining Program should set more challenging and innovative goals and determine the means to achieve them. Part II of this report offers specific examples. It must also be recognized that continued optimization of current mining systems will lead to progressively less favorable health and safety conditions. Industry must look at alternative approaches that offer greater potential for reduced exposure, and the Mining Program needs to be prepared to make appropriate recommendations regarding these approaches. Fatality, injury, and illness data are of great value for prioritizing research aimed at reducing observed hazards in the workplace. This approach, however, is not proactive in defining and eliminating hazards before injury and illness occur. A large number of unsafe conditions may underlie an injury- or illness-causing incident, and many unreported incidents may occur before resulting in a reported injury or illness. An approach to proactively identify hazards and develop appropriate countermeasures would result in the reduction of exposures and accidents and, therefore, injuries, illness, and fatalities. A source of this kind of incidence data could be Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) inspection data currently collected at all mines. Effort should be made by the Mining Program to obtain information about “near-miss” and other gaps in incident statistics, and to identify the appropriate means of interpreting the data to ensure all mine worker populations are represented. “Look-ahead technologies” employing geophysical and geochemical methods may help to characterize ground conditions ahead of mining (NRC, 2002) and thus detect hazards before workers are exposed. The Mining Program is currently not engaged in exploring these methods at any large scale. PROJECT SELECTION Project selection in the Mining Program, described in Chapter 2, begins with researcher-initiated proposals. Projects encompassing multiple strategic goals would allow improved integration of research efforts most conducive for health and safety advances. Though program researchers are enthusiastic about their
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Mining Safety and Health Research at NIOSH: Reviews of Research Programs of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health work and recognized by their peers, they may not have the breadth of knowledge required to develop multidisciplinary proposals. There is growing concern regarding the availability of qualified research personnel, and advantages of involving outside expertise through a large and vibrant extramural program with both investigator-initiated research and contractors on NIOSH-initiated research. This is especially true given the high costs of developing expertise in all areas where innovative research is required. External grants and contracts would also serve to train personnel for the industry-at-large, as well as for the Mining Program. Extramural research within mineral-related academic programs would prepare young professionals to enter the industry, and allow academic programs to make greater contributions to society. TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER As discussed in Chapter 2, the efforts of the Mining Program in the area of technology transfer (research to practice, r2p), while commendable, are not proportional to its efforts in the conduct of research. The effective transfer of NIOSH-developed products, practices, and guidelines to industry is essential for outputs to result in improvements in workplace health and safety. Adoption of products by the industry or promulgation of guidelines and standards by MSHA requires a good understanding of the potential outcomes associated with them. While there is an appreciation of this fact, it is not clear the r2p processes in place will achieve the desired results, given that much of the responsibility for technology transfer is in the hands of project researchers. The problem is particularly acute now in view of changing mining technologies and the developing shortage of trained manpower at all levels. Fiscal year 2005 funding for Mining Program r2p was less than 5 percent of the total budget. Better and more focused methods to deliver outputs and to document resulting intermediate outcomes are needed. Technology transfer activities should be sharpened with new programs and additional resources. Improvements in current training procedures and practices are necessary, along with new research to determine more effective ways to transfer knowledge and technology. The Mining Program should determine the means of engaging and encouraging researchers and specialists to produce greater and more effective technology transfer mechanisms. FINDINGS To a large extent, the Mining Program is doing research that is relevant to the present and future mining industry, but the program’s ability to target new research
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Mining Safety and Health Research at NIOSH: Reviews of Research Programs of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health areas may be restricted by limited resources, stakeholder expectations, and other external factors. Notwithstanding, it is evident the Mining Program has been moving toward bringing new areas into its research portfolio. By initiating research on a number of new fronts (e.g., chemical hazards, improved communication and training research) and by targeting more research in areas such as noise prevention, surveillance, and musculoskeletal disorders, the Mining Program has attempted, albeit in a limited manner, to address the needs of the future.
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