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Safer, More Profitable Mining is Possible with Lean

Safer, More Profitable Mining is Possible with Lean

“Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt,” went the words of the 1950s hit by classic country music artist and television host Tennessee Ernie Ford. Has the mining industry made any progress since then? Yes and no.

Last month, a coal company executive was indicted for contributing to the deaths of 29 miners in 2010. In this case, it was a history of pushing production over maintenance. With water sprayers broken, a spark ignited methane gas and coal-dust exploded. At another time, this same executive said, “Run coal. Don’t bolt [the mine roof] for the year 2525. Now is not the time.”

As new regulations recently cut the amount of coal dust permitted in mines, another company, Murray Energy, has filed suit against the Obama administration, accusing it of waging “War on Coal,” destroying the jobs and livelihoods of coal miners. The company argued that information coming from technical experts and the coal industry was ignored in determining the regulations.

While they say they care about miners’ jobs and livelihoods, it seems more likely that these companies care more about reducing costs and increasing throughput. Current coal prices are under pressure with China dumping coal (mined with little regulation of safety and the environment) onto the market while burgeoning natural gas supplies are tipping the scales away from choosing coal to fuel new power plants. Avoiding costs related to safety and environmental impact is one way to preserve profitability.

There’s another way to cut costs and protect people and the environment, however -- lean manufacturing principles. Two companies, Barrick Gold and Rio Tinto, are showing how to do it effectively.

Sam Walsh has been taking what he learned in his career at Nissan to Rio Tinto. One example is to reduce risk to people from gigantic mining machines by making them driverless. To improve throughput, keen attention to equipment uptime, remote condition monitoring, and lean maintenance catch issues before they become problems. Rio Tinto emphasizes safety with its Zero Harm program, which utilizes ideas from an engaged workforce.

Barrick Gold is also addressing safety by investing in training and relentless continuous improvement. With constant training, Barrick seeks zero incidents, identifying specific risk categories and narrowing down root causes for countermeasures and elimination. It improved its rate of total reportable injury frequency 77 percent between 2005 and 2013. Winner of multiple Nevada Mining Association Safety Awards, Barrick identifies, tracks, and trends dust, gases and fumes in a database management system. Engineering work practice controls focus on potential health hazards, while identifying areas where controls are lacking or inadequate.

Like manufacturing, mining is an industry that does not have to be dark, dirty, and dangerous. The lean manufacturing community could do more to reach out and educate the mining industry. Shareholders and boards of directors in the mining industry could look more closely at cowboy CEOs and consider whether a different sort of leader would serve them better.

And it’s worth remembering that Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno said, “Safety is the foundation [of lean].”

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray Construction.