Breaking Though the Safety Plateau: An Interview with Bruce Watzman

27th Mar 2015

Originally Published in Cornerstone, Volume 3, Issue 1

Author: Holly Krutka, Executive Editor, Cornerstone

Bruce Watzman is the US National Mining Association’s Senior Vice President for Regulatory Affairs, tasked with managing the association’s overall regulatory policy activities to ensure their consistency with the business needs of the association’s membership. He has principal responsibility for overseeing the public policies issues in Congress and relevant regulatory agencies that advance the health and safety performance of the US mining industry and manufacturers that provide equipment to the industry.

Mr. Watzman serves on various planning committees for the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. In 2007, he was appointed by the US Secretary of Health and Human Services to serve as a member of the MSHA Research Advisory Committee. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Holmes Safety Association and serves on the National Executive Committee for the National Mine Rescue Contest.

Mr. Watzman is one of the principal authors of NMA’s CORESafety initiative, a safety and health management system to drive continuous improvement in the industry’s safety and health performance. He has testified before Congress on numerous occasions to discuss impediments to performance improvement.

He received an undergraduate degree from the George Washington University and a postgraduate degree from the University of Maryland.

In our Summer 2014 issue, Cornerstone published an article by Mr. Watzman that focused on the CORESafety initiative. Nine months later, we’re following up to learn how implementation is progressing.


Q: Coal mining is the largest constituent of US mining and, as you explained in your previous Cornerstone article, is thus responsible for demonstrating leadership on health and safety. The NMA is spearheading CORESafety as part of an overall movement to improve health and safety. What is the current status of that initiative?

We continue to see progress in terms of the implementation of CORESafety at NMA’s participating member operations and at operations of companies not affiliated with NMA. These signs are encouraging and we would expect more companies to consider implementing CORESafety or a functionally equivalent system as they come to understand the value of managing safety and health using a systems approach, just as they use this approach to manage other vital functions across their organisations. We believe the adoption of CORESafety will continue to grow across the U.S. mining industry.

I also think in the past year we have seen the CORESafety brand become an identifiable symbol of enlightened management. As the word spreads about the purposes and use of the initiative, more companies want to be affiliated with mine safety innovations and, therefore, with initiatives like CORESafety. So I would say there is a growing reputational value to this initiative. The word is spreading.

Q: What aspects of CORESafety have been most successful? Are there any aspects of the framework or its implementation that are currently being actively modified or improved?

CORESafety is built on a risk management philosophy where attendant risks of activities are proactively analysed. In this way, risks can be eliminated, to the maximum extent practical, before an activity is undertaken. This central feature is what distinguishes it from the reactive, command and-control approach that is at the heart of the regulatory structure used by the US MSHA to guide mine safety and health. Additionally, as risk analysis is implemented, safety culture is enhanced. Quite simply, by instilling a risk assessment culture across an organisation, we are putting thinking before acting. It gives employees an understanding that management’s attention to the safety and health of its workforce is a core value, not an afterthought.

As with any new initiative, we recognise that CORESafety will likely have to be tweaked as companies gain experience implementing the system into their operations. It’s still too early to define what this might entail. But I think the governing philosophy here remains sound and that any modifications will be focused on streamlining its structure rather than redesigning it wholesale.

A final feature that we have found to be very advantageous is that our initiative is created to be adaptable to varied mining conditions. We didn’t want to mimic the top-down, one-size-fits-all model typical in federal regulation. We wanted the safety modules that comprise CORESafety to form an organic programme, one that is flexible and practical. This feature enhances its broad acceptance and the more its safety principles are adapted, the safer our mines will become.

Q: We now know that, in terms of fatalities, 2014 was the safest year that the US has ever seen. What are the factors that you believe have allowed the coal-mining sector to break through the previously observed plateau? What is the next milestone on the horizon?

I think there are several factors that contributed to 2014 being the safest year on record with the fewest fatalities in the history of US coal mines. Certainly one contributing factor is CORESafety. We all take pride in the fact that the 16 coal mine fatalities recorded was a record. But the flip side is that 16 deaths is a stark reminder that more needs to be done to achieve the goal we all seek of zero fatalities across the entirety of the mining industry. Some point to the enhanced enforcement activity of the MSHA as being the central factor to drive the improvement. Of course enforcement plays a role. But let’s remember that we’ve been operating under the Mine Act for 45 years, so while the coal industry’s safety record has improved throughout this period, clearly enforcement alone is not going to get us to where we need to be. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Industry would have achieved its long-sought goal of zero fatalities because enforcement today is as strict as it has ever been.

In developing and embracing CORESafety, NMA’s leadership recognised the limitations of the reactive enforcement model at the heart of the Mine Act. We understood that MSHA’s implementation of this model would not, in and of itself, get the industry to zero fatalities—the goal we’re still working towards.

I would say the next milestone is to achieve a critical mass of industry acceptance. We’re on our way, but we’re not there yet.

Q: How will the NMA work to make further progress toward the ultimate goal of an industry with zero fatalities? What do you see as the most significant obstacle to reaching this goal?

As noted previously, we continue to work with companies to provide tools and resources to implement CORESafety, but it doesn’t stop there. CORESafety is unlike any other safety and health management system in U.S. industry in that the NMA leadership made a conscious decision to make all of the tools and resources available to all in the mining community free of charge. Quite simply, the goal was to drive improvement across the mining sector. And we are encouraged that companies outside of NMA, both domestic and international, are availing themselves of these resources to drive continuous performance improvement across their operations too.

Implementing CORESafety depends on changing or expanding one’s understanding of how we have managed safety and health historically, and then changing the command-and-control reactive model for a proactive, risk management approach. This is one of the first hurdles that must be overcome and will remain an obstacle as companies come to learn more and invest in this new, voluntary approach.

The other obstacle is co-managing MSHA’s compliance approach along with the CORESafety model. Unfortunately, these twin objectives are not entirely complementary. In some quarters, it remains a challenge to overcome the mindset that compliance with MSHA’s regulatory requirements is all one must do to provide a safe workplace. That is obviously necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Q: Can you provide examples of how you are working with other industries and the coal producers abroad to share experiences and lessons learned?

One of the first things we did when our leadership directed us to develop a new model to drive continuous performance improvement was talk to those who were already moving beyond simple regulatory compliance. So we visited with companies, and associations representing companies, that had already embarked upon this safety journey to learn from their experience. In this way, we benefited from the lessons that had already been learned by others.

We continue to dialogue with representatives from the chemical, nuclear, and oil and gas industries who share our goal - continuous safety performance improvement. These discussions have reinforced the belief that there are many positive initiatives underway across industry both in the U.S. and internationally and that communicating and sharing these accrues benefit to all. Working with international groups like World Coal Association and the International Council on Mining and Metals, we have been able to bring the proactive tools to US mining companies that are already spreading worker safety and health improvement across the globe.

To download the full issue of Cornerstone, visit: Cornerstone, Vol. 3, Issue 1