Feds at Work: Improved the health and safety of mine workers

Used behavioral science to persuade miners to use technologies and practices that reduce their exposure to known hazards

Despite many improvements to protect worker health and safety at the nation’s 13,000 active mines, an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 miners are injured each year. Thousands more are exposed to hazards that can lead to lung disease and other serious conditions.

Emily Haas in the field while collecting safety-climate survey data. (Photo: Cassandra Hoebbel)

In recent years, respirators, engineering controls and other technologies have been introduced to improve health and safety in coal, metal, mineral and other mines yet, often, many of the nation’s 200,000 miners don’t take advantage of them.

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 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.

Emily Haas and Cassandra Hoebbel in the field, receiving a mine tour while collecting safety-climate survey data. (Mine company photo, courtesy of Emily Haas)

Traditionally, the mining industry has given updated technology and equipment to workers without following 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, in certain situations workers say they’re afraid to report anything and don’t believe 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 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 simple steps workers could take to reduce exposure.

Her interventions, many of them 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%, earning 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. Emily “made the miners partners in helping to understand the disease.”

Haas teaches and presents leadership workshops, and shares her research at industry conferences. Some of her work appears online and reaches tens of thousands more workers.

Her impact reaches beyond the mining industry. For example, several construction companies share online information containing her findings.

Haas said she is proud of highlighting the value of social science research at NIOSH. But her highest personal achievement, she said, comes from “using research to help people.”

Emily Hass is one of 26 finalists for the 2019 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, presented annually by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service to celebrate employees who have made significant contributions to our nation’s health, safety and prosperity.

Help us share their stories using #Sammies2019. Nominations for 2020 will open in September, so be on the lookout for inspiring federal employees you would like to recognize.

Partnership for Public Service

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The Partnership works to revitalize our federal government by inspiring a new generation to serve and by transforming the way government works.

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