In testimony before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions of the United States Senate today, Thomas Novak, the C.T. Holland Professor and Department Head Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, recommended an overarching approach through engineering and scientific research for mining safety in the United States.

Novak, associated with the coal mining industry as a miner, engineer, researcher, educator, and consultant for the past 35 years, said he did not have a “quick fix” to the problems of mine safety.

However, he did advise that the U.S. government’s “strong commitment to research and development would provide the most effective means for improving mine safety.”

Government funding for mine safety research has significantly decreased over the last few decades. Funding dropped from a high of approximately $140 million in 1979 to approximately $30 million in 1999, with the vast majority of this amount going to in-house projects and personnel at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) two research labs, Novak said.

“Because of this drop in funding and the dismantling of the internationally renowned U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1996, the United States has lost much of its expertise in mine safety research. As a result, centers of excellence in mining research have shifted to other countries, such as Australia,” Novak added.

The decrease in contract funding has also “devastated mining engineering education,” Novak said. In fact, only half of the programs that existed 20 years ago exist today. A recent study commissioned by the Society of Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration (SME) estimates that 300 to 400 graduates per year will be needed to meet the demands of the industry for at least the next 10 years. At the same time, the SME reports that only 69 students graduated last year with baccalaureate degrees in mining engineering. Of the dozen accredited programs, only two graduated more than 10 students last year.

Novak pointed out that the mining industry “provides more than half the nation’s energy for electricity, as well as the mineral products that are vital for our defense, manufacturing, civil infrastructure, and national economy.” With these facts in mind, “these are scary statistics, since highly trained mining engineers will be needed to design and manage our country’s mining operations and deal with the complex issues of safety.”

Along these same lines, Novak said, more than 60 percent of the mining engineering faculty is over the age of 50, and one-half of all faculty plans to retire within the next 10 years. Thus, mining-engineering education is at a critical juncture. “Research funding is necessary to produce the required Ph.D. graduates to replenish our aging faculty,” Novak added.

Novak asked the committee to institute a strong, government-supported, university research program. This program should have a three-pronged approach which would provide: a means for in-depth, multidisciplinary analyses and solutions to the critical safety issues that confront the mining industry through collaboration with government agencies, mining companies, and manufacturers; a means for producing well qualified mining engineers who are trained to promote a mindset of safety consciousness in the design and operation of our mines; and a means for regaining the country’s mine-safety expertise through the training of future researchers and mining-engineering professors, who will ensure the sustainability of a vibrant mining engineering profession.

He further recommended that this program be administered through NIOSH’s Office of Mine Safety and Health Research (MSHA), or a newly created institute based on this office, rather than MSHA. “Research and enforcement should be kept separate, and MSHA should be permitted to totally dedicate its resources to enforcement,” he concluded.

The coal mining industry has made “major strides to improve worker safety” over the past decades, Novak testified. “In the last 15 years, annual fatalities have dropped by 76 percent, from a high of 66 in 1990 to a low of 22 in 2005. Nevertheless, the tragic events that occurred during the first two months of this year have caused all of us to pause and reevaluate our commitment to mine safety.”