When disaster strikes in America’s coal mines, Kevin Stricklin and his team race to the scene to lead dangerous rescue and recovery operations, calling on years of training and experience, and at times devising creative solutions in the midst of the crisis.
On a day-to-day basis, Stricklin, the administrator for coal, and his colleagues at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) are working to enforce safety rules and improve industry compliance to prevent deadly accidents from occurring in the first place.
During the past several years, Stricklin has been on the frontlines leading the agency’s efforts to step up enforcement, work that is proving effective. The number of coal miners who died in accidents last year was the lowest ever recorded in U.S. history, while the number of chronic violators of coal mine regulations decreased precipitously even as MSHA ramped up inspections.
“Kevin’s everyday job is overseeing the enforcement program for mines across the United States,” said Joseph Main, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “Nobody has achieved as much as Kevin. He is a tough enforcer, but he has a lot of credibility that allows him to deal effectively with all of the stakeholders.”
In the 1990s, coal mining deaths averaged about 45 per year. In 2014, 16 coal miners died on the job, the lowest number in history. In addition, the number of mines with chronic violations dropped from 51 in 2010 to 12 in 2014, and the number of citations against mines fell from 96,352 in 2010 to 62,828 in 2014 even as inspections increased, showing a marked improvement in compliance with safety rules.
MSHA increased its enforcement regimen following the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia, when 29 of 31 coal miners were killed following an explosion of methane gas fed by excessive coal dust. Investigations later revealed that the mine had a long list of uncorrected flagrant safety violations.
“Since the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, there have been a ton of reforms to make mines safer,” said Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. “Kevin has been very involved in carrying out initiatives to improve mine safety following that disaster.”
These changes have included inspections four times a year, surprise inspections targeting coal mines with repeat violations, and the use of a “pattern of violations” program that identifies habitual safety lapses and subjects mine operators to extra scrutiny and even possible shutdowns. MSHA also instituted a new rule in the summer of 2014 to reduce the level of coal dust in the mines, and in five months, took more than 23,000 samples.
Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu said Stricklin and his staff of inspectors and safety experts have made “significant strides since the West Virginia mine disaster.”
“These inspectors are in the trenches every day helping coal mine operators improve their environment and safety,” said Lu.
In addition to the safety aspect of the job, Stricklin and a team of three of colleagues, John Urosek, Jeff Kravitz and Virgil Brown, are credited with playing pivotal roles in rescue and recovery efforts when mine disasters have occurred, crafting innovations that have led to saving lives.
“Kevin and his team have been at the front lines of over 100 mining disasters, communicating with concerned families and leading rescue and recovery operations,” said Perez. “Heroic is the only way I can describe it.”
On his team, Urosek is the technical expert, checking out the information, numbers and ratios and making recommendations on how to handle dangerous situations. Kravitz is the communications expert, setting up the means for miners trapped below ground and the rescue teams to remain in contact. Brown, who used to be on mine rescue teams, helps train teams to go into mines and to keep all technical rescue-recovery equipment up-to-date.
“Kevin is the guy on the scene with a tremendous amount of pressure,” said George Fesak, who recently retired as MSHA’s director of technical support. “Kevin and his team are able to maintain their calm and their cool, and when required, use technical and innovative approaches. This team has made mine rescue much more systematic and controlled.”
In 2002, the Quecreek underground coal mine in Pennsylvania flooded, trapping nine miners. Rescuers drilled a 6.5-inch hole, and Stricklin and Urosek devised a plan to inject compressed air into the hole to provide oxygen to the miners and prevent the water level from rising any further. The miners survived and were eventually hoisted to the surface one-by-one using a capsule Kravitz helped to design.
Following the deadly explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia in 2006, rescuers were hampered by limitations in communicating over long distances—the standard protocol was 1,000 feet. The obstacle motivated Urosek to develop a wireless and fiber optic system that extended two-way voice communication to up to five miles, allowing continuous communication between the rescue teams and the command center.
Stricklin, whose two grandfathers and father were all coal miners, said that when it comes to mine safety and rescue operations, “The buck stops with me.”
“Our charge is to make mines as safe and healthy as possible for miners through laws and enforcement and plans that mines have to comply with,” said Stricklin. “Our objective is for each miner to go home as safe and as healthy at the end of the day as they started at the beginning of the day.”