If you’ve seen videos that show the manufacture of gypsum products, you might have seen some very large trucks hauling gypsum ore from point A to point B. You might have even seen a clip of a controlled explosion where gypsum deposits are being reduced to manageable pieces underground. But you probably haven’t given a lot of thought, if any, to the hands-on part of the job, the actual mining or quarrying of the gypsum ore.

Notwithstanding the increasing use of synthetic gypsum to manufacturer gypsum board, the majority of gypsum used in North America remains natural ore that is excavated in a mining operation. While some natural gypsum is mined via shafts that go into the ground, the bulk of it is surface-mined in open-air pits or quarries.

Today’s mining facilities are considerably more sophisticated than they were 100 years ago; however, mining is still dangerous work. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, mining deaths averaged roughly 1,500 per year. In response to this high death rate, Congress established the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1910 to help implement changes in the operation of mines. To accomplish this mission, the bureau was assigned the roles of investigating mining accidents, conducting safety research, and teaching courses in accident prevention, first aid, and mining rescue procedures.

Once the bureau began to implement its programs, the number of mining facility accidents and deaths began to slowly but steadily decline. Coal mining deaths, which have historically been the highest, fell from an average of 1,000 per year in the early 1900s to 451 in the 1950s, and 141 in the 1970s. By the 1990s, the average annual number of fatalities had fallen to 45. Non-coal mining figures, though lower in magnitude, show similar results. In the 1930s, non-coal mining deaths had reached an annual average of 233 and declined to an annual average of 51 in the 1990s.

The Mine Act

In 1977, Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, which combined and enhanced existing laws regulating the operation of mines. The new law extended protections that had previously only covered coal miners to non-coal miners, including gypsum miners. Under the new act, the U.S. Department of Labor created the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). MSHA became responsible for creating and enforcing mine safety and health regulations, providing mine safety training, performing inspections of mines, and working with mine operators to bring their operations into regulatory compliance.

The 1977 act applies to all mining and mineral-processing operations in the United States, regardless of size, number of employees, or method of extraction. Thus MSHA covers two-person sand and gravel pits as well as large underground coal mines and processing plants.

In the context of this article, a reference to a miner connotes a reference to a person who works in either an underground mine or a surface mine or quarry.

MSHA is required by law to perform a minimum of four complete inspections of all underground mining operations annually and to perform a minimum of two annual inspections of surface mining operations. MSHA is also required to develop new and detailed regulations on basic safety and health training for miners, to upgrade existing mine safety and health regulations, to propose changes in the civil penalty system that will punish rules violators, and elicit greater participation from miners or their representatives in safety awareness activities.

Over the last few years, MSHA has encouraged the mining industries to cooperate in developing programs that will improve safety and health conditions. Although MSHA’s primary responsibility is to ensure compliance with the Mine Act, the agency has aggressively promoted the education and training in safety and health regulations, and has provided assistance in meeting those regulations.

MSHA may impose civil fines ranging from $60 to $220,000 per violation, but the agency insists it is more focused on bringing operators and miners into compliance through training, education, and consulting than by imposing fines. When fines are assessed, MSHA makes its recommendations to a special judge who may agree with the fine, or adjust it, depending on the severity of the infraction and the operator’s or miner’s apparent willingness to correct the infraction. Criminal infractions are referred to the U.S. Department of Justice.

MSHA provides technical assistance from its technology center near Pittsburgh, Pa. Technical specialists assist MSHA field inspectors and mine operators by providing the latest information available on how to assess potentially dangerous conditions and health hazards, including dusts, liquids, gases, noise, radiation, and heat. The technical specialists also provide information on ventilation, structural systems, waste management, and other features found in a modern mining environment.

The center also provides regular updates on state-of-the-art technology, and methods and procedures for improving safety and health conditions in mines. MSHA also offers lectures, seminars, training sessions, and reports with the latest information on safety and health to mine operators.

Training and Education

MSHA is quite emphatic that inspections and enforcement can only bring about a certain degree of compliance; it sees training and education as its main tools for improving safety and health in the 2,100 coal mines and 12,700 other facilities over which it has jurisdiction. MSHA targets miners and their supervisors for their programs, operating under the belief that well-trained personnel are more aware of the occupational risks and therefore better motivated to avoid those risks, which in turn improves compliance with safety and health regulations.

MSHA requires that mining operators provide 40 hours of basic safety and health training for newly hired, inexperienced underground miners before they ever enter a mine; 24 hours of basic safety and health training for newly hired, inexperienced surface miners before they start work; eight hours of annual safety and health reorientation for all miners; and task-related safety and health training for all miners changing assignments.

Mine inspectors and mine safety professionals-government and private-can receive the latest courses in safety and inspection procedures, accident prevention, industrial hygiene, and several other topics at MSHA’s training facility, the National Health and Safety Academy, in Beckley, W. Va. This is the world’s largest facility in the world that deals with mine safety and health. Its classrooms, simulated mine, laboratories, and auditorium can accommodate up to a total of 600 students; there is space in its dormitory for 300 visitors.

In addition to its academy training, MSHA has a field training program as well, the Educational Field Services (EFS) program. MSHA’s EFS training specialists average 120 visits to mining operations weekly.

Partnering With the Gypsum Industry

In July 2003 MSHA released a training video that it made with the cooperation of the Gypsum Association and several of its members. The video, titled “Health and Safety Hazard Awareness-An Overview,” is an orientation program targeted toward gypsum surface mine and quarry workers. The program highlights safe operation of machinery, material handling, proper use of personal protective equipment, and identifying and avoiding electrical and chemical jobsite hazards. The video has been made available to employees of more than 120 North American gypsum operations by the Gypsum Association, and is available to anyone through MSHA.

In October 2005 the Gypsum Association signed a partnership agreement with MSHA, wherein, among other things, MSHA and the Association agreed to work together to achieve the following technical assistance and education and training goals:

• Conduct evaluations of certain applied engineering topics to improve mine safety and health in gypsum mines and facilities;

• Administer analyses to identify hazards affecting the health and safety of the alliance’s miners;

• Analyze historical data to evaluate the effectiveness of compliance and safety;

• Perform mine safety and health case studies to determine areas for improved safety;

• Use evaluations and case studies to set objectives and performance-based goals; and

• Develop training and education programs to reduce and prevent mine hazards.

In pursuit of these goals, our most recent joint effort with MSHA is the creation of a new training video targeted to underground gypsum miners, which has a working title of “The Job of Safety Never Ends.” The video will address jobsite communication, jobsite examinations and inspections, changing conditions in an underground environment, and health hazards. The first draft of the script, which was provided by MSHA, is being circulated among the association’s Safety and Health Committee’s members. Once the script is approved, filming is scheduled to begin in the late spring, and the video is anticipated to be released by the end of the year.

The Gypsum Association is proud of the gypsum industry’s excellent safety record and has embraced the opportunity to serve as a conduit between the gypsum producers and MSHA. We are even more proud of our role in protecting miners. By partnering with MSHA we hope to increase mineworker awareness of the inherent occupational risks involved in mining.