Despite numerous improvements in protecting worker health and safety at the nation’s 13,000 active mines, an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 miners are injured each year, and thousands more are exposed to hazards that can lead to lung disease and other serious conditions.
New technologies, including engineering controls and respirators, have been introduced in recent years to improve health and safety in coal, metal, mineral, stone and other mines, yet many of the nation’s 200,000 miners do not always take advantage of these safety measures.
In her pioneering research, Emily Haas of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has advanced the use of behavioral science to understand how employee perspectives influence the adoption of new technology and workplace practices. She has used these findings to develop a series of innovative solutions to encourage employees to take steps that will reduce their exposure to serious health and safety risks.
“Many researchers examine safety issues in mines, but they rarely have the strategic vision and wherewithal to actually make things happen,” said Jeffrey Kohler, a former colleague at NIOSH and professor and chair of the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering at Penn State University. Haas is effective “in what really matters, translating the research into something that is really going to do something for the audience,” he said.
Traditionally, the mining industry has given updated technology and equipment to workers without further follow up. Haas, a senior behavioral research scientist in NIOSH’s Pittsburgh Mining Research Division, has focused on how the new technology can be implemented effectively throughout the industry.
From 2016 to 2018, Haas studied mine safety involving approximately 2,700 mine workers at 39 mines and identified gaps in how management perceives the strength of the safety culture compared with how workers perceive it.
For example, her research found that while management might believe it is promoting safety, there are certain situations in which workers say they are afraid to report anything and do not believe that management supports safety.
By presenting this information to mining organizations, Haas helped empower workers and develop changes to the safety management systems at mining operations.
“Emily Haas created a unique approach to assess and improve safety climate at mine sites, an issue that was previously unexplained and historically unyielding to investigation,” said Audrey Glowacki, NIOSH team leader with Mine Emergencies and Organization Systems.
Haas also collaborated with agency engineers on joint engineering-human factors research, leading the examination of practices to reduce worker exposure to silica dust, a major contributor to lung disease.
She equipped workers with NIOSH’s helmet-cam technology, including dust monitors that measure real-time dust exposure and cameras mounted to their backpacks during their shifts. Using NIOSH’s EVADE software, workers could see firsthand where and when their exposure was greatest. From there, she discussed with workers some simple steps they could take to reduce exposure.
Her interventions, many of which were basic and economical, can be applied to help more than 58,000 workers. Through partnerships at five industrial sites, she helped workers make changes that reduced personal dust exposure by 92%, an impact that earned Haas international recognition and awards.
“We have spent a tremendous amount of time and money on implementing engineering interventions but failed to close the gap in disease levels,” Kohler said. “We needed to merge engineering research with behavioral research, and Emily is one of the drivers in making this happen. She made the miners partners in helping to understand the disease.”
“The level of trust Haas has built within the industry is remarkable,” added Margaret Kitt, NIOSH deputy director for programs.
Haas, who teaches and gives leadership workshops, also is asked to share her research at industry conferences. Some of her work, including one company’s updated safety training guides, is online, reaching tens of thousands more workers. Several construction companies also share this online information, so her findings are having an impact beyond the mining industry.
Haas said she is proud of highlighting the value of social science research at NIOSH. But her highest personal achievement comes from “using research to help people,” she said.