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Notes from underground; some surprising lessons about productivity and job satisfaction from the coal mines.

Some surprising lessons about productivity and job satisfciction from the coal mines.

The stereotype of underground mining is that it is dirty, monotonous, brutal, exceedingly hazardous, low-paying work done by illiterate gnomes with no alternatives. Dirty and physically strenuous I'll concede, but the rest ranges from exaggerated to wildly inaccurate. I found mining interesting, aesthetically satisfying, fun, and financially rewarding. Who but a miner goes places daily that no one else has ever visited? And, these days, who but a miner gets to participate in a successful American heavy industry?

The first time I reported for work at a coal mine was in the middle of an icy night in the Utah mountains at the end of 1975. 1 had a brand-new belt (for carrying a self-rescuer, tools, and a lamp battery) and a hard hat, yellow to indicate I was a rookie. The mine was small and nonunion; its lamphouse was a battered semitrailer with a coal stove in one end, two benches, a lamp-charging rack, and a row of hooks for clothes.

There were three other young men on the graveyard shift, and when the boss arrived he immediately fired one of them for laziness and missed shifts. We got on an electric "ramcar," a low, flat vehicle used to scoop coal, and drove inside. I shoveled coal along the rib-the mine wall-for half the night; then we drove outside, changed the ramcar's eight tons of bat- teries, and hand loaded it with several tons of rockdust sacks. For the rest of the shift, we sprayed the inside of the mine with powdered limestone, to dilute the coal dust and make it nonexplosive. Because of this dusting, most of the surfaces of any modern coal mine are white, not black.

Here are a few other facts that might surprise you about mines: While membership in the United Mine Workers of America has dropped by 50 percent over the past decade, the average underground miner's productivity has doubled (by comparison, total nonagricultural business productivity has increased by about 10 percent). The mine-mouth price of coal has fallen by 30 percent in real terms, saving consumers $3 to $4 billion each year and eliminating one third of all mine jobs. Most miners still on the job haven't suffered financially for these gains, however. Real wages have increased slightly during this period.

One thing everyone agrees on is that mines are dangerous. And these changes in industry statistics suggest they may be getting more so. After all, there must be some downside to this success story besides the many displaced workers. Maybe miners have been trading their safety for cash.

One night in Utah, we were rock-dusting back in the return," an exhaust airway leading out from the active section of the mine. Clint drove the ramcar; Dale rode in the machine's bucket and loaded the duster; I walked backward and sprayed dust on the roof, ribs, and bottom. The hydraulic-powered duster roared hypnotically. Dale fell asleep on the heaps of 50-pound sacks. From time to time the duster ran empty, and I had to flash my light at Dale's face to wake him up so that he would break a few more bags into the hopper.

It was pleasant, easy-going work. I meandered along the 20-foot wide "entry" (not "tunnel") and painted the mine white with broad strokes.

Just as I backed out of an intersection, there was a tremendous crash and a blast of air. The roof of the entire room fell, leaving behind a dome that arched above the ends of the four-foot roof bolts. The outer edge of the fall was two feet from my toes. Clint stopped the duster, and we waited for ventilation to carry the cloud away. There was a huge mound of gray shale slabs. We made a brave joke or two, and Dale swore for the hundredth time that he was going back to work for the railroad. Then we started the duster and continued backing out. Dale stayed awake for the rest of the shift.

Many miners have horror stories like that. But even so, the fatality rate in mines has fallen by two-thirds since the mid-1970s. Coal mining is among the most hazardous of professions, but popular notions exaggerate the danger. At work, a miner runs three times the annual risk of dying that the average citizen faces while driving a car. But since the average American spends less than an hour each day on the road, coal mining is several times safer per hour. Given the fearlessness with which most people climb into a car, it's amusing to consider their terror of mines. But cigarette smokers win the prize for calling the kettle black; the risk they run in terms of expected loss of years per lifetime is roughly seven times greater than the one miners face.

The industry has made gains in safety despite miners' habitual cheating on state and federal regulations. In 1977 I saw this first-hand when I went to Colorado to work for Mid-Continent Coal & Coke Co. On entering the mine, we traveled the first halfmile up the steep rock tunnel in a diesel mantrip, the personnel carriers that miners use to get to and from the face," where they actually extract the coal. Because of heavy overburden"-the several thousand feet of rock overhead-the pillars of uncut coal that act as supports were gradually crushed, the bottom "bounced" upward, and the entries soon became too low for a mantrip to pass. So from the top of the passage, we had to walk two or three miles down along the steeply sloping seam to the working sections.

At the end of our shift, when we traveled towards the surface, we rode the conveyor belt that transports coal out of the mine. In some places the belt ran so close to the overhead rock that we had to lie down, push our buckets and hardhats ahead of us, and press one cheek flat against the black rubber. Traveling this way was fast, comfortable, convenient . . . and illegal. Belt-riding can be legal if special boarding platforms are built, the belt is running at a crawl, there are no unusual hazards along the way, and the operation is supervised. In other words, belt-riding can be legal once it's not worth the trouble.

Rock-dusters at Mid-Continent had a big job. The mine had a soft coal bottom and high methane levels, so they had to spray a lot of dust to prevent ignitions. An explosion killed 15 about a year before I arrived, and another took nine after I left-a major reason this is one of the highest-paying mines in the country. Dusters ranged all over the mine on the graveyard shift, carrying hoses, connectors, and nozzles. The belt saved them a lot of difficult hiking.

A literal-minded, fundamentalist "green hand" once joined the dust crew. When he heard that beltriding was illegal, he refused to do it on religious grounds.

"Listen, even God can't see through 3,000 feet of sandstone," his partners told him. "You can get away with it." Still he refused. Okay," they said, "do what you want, but if you don't keep up with us, we'll get rid of you." For a few days, the conscientious objector ran along the belt, up steep slopes in gluey wet coal and rock-dust, dragging his hose behind him. No one knew if his partners' theological reasoning finally swayed him, but one day, there he was, riding the belt with the rest of us.

Mine kampf

Surprisingly, mine safety seems to have as much to do with mineowners' desire to maximize profits as with government oversight. In 1987 the Bureau of Mines released a survey of 25 mines that it identified as having the most productive continuous-miner sections in the country. These crews cut coal at 3.3 times the national average of 368 tons per section shift, pulling out between 650 and 2,800 tons. Although accident rates for these 25 Wonder Mines were not published, their rate of safety citations per inspectorday was less than one-third the national average.

For some years, the most productive mines have tended to have the best safety records. In the survey, one superintendent commented, "I can't prove this, it is a feeling and I believe that the more you do toward safety, the more efficient you get and the more productive you get . . . . technology will give you an edge, but without our safety program it wouldn't work." Plain and simple market logic demands mine safety. Firms compete for the best miners by pointing to their safety reputations as well as their wages. The most skilled miners tend to be the best at avoiding injury, and so on.

In addition, carelessness in the mines results in immediate economic loss. Safety violations can carry hefty cash penalties, but the real cost comes when a mine is shut down due to a serious accident. After a fatality, a mine will be closed for an investigation that lasts several days. A single death could drive a mine out of business.

In the Bureau of Mines survey, some superintendents credited the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) with improving working conditions. Such praise smells fishy to me. I have heard few kind words about inspectors from either managers or miners. One general manager of a highly productive operation told me that the MSHNs rules cut productivity without enhancing safety. "Some of their regs make sense, and would be our policy anyway. Some of them are archaic, some are just plain silly, and some don't go far enough. When you talk about high-productivity mines having low citations per inspector-hour, that's a meaningless measure; it has little to do with safety. Those guys come through and give us citations for having the wrong color toilet paper in the damned Porta-Potty, and then miss the most dangerous situation in the mine."

A few years after I started mining, a Porta-Potty regulation came down from "the feds." Before the Porta-Potty era, we urinated at will, anywhere except in the kitchen," where we ate lunch. We conducted our more complicated personal business back in the Return. The only taboo was against using intake airways, in order to spare the noses of the crew. After the Porta-Potty ruling we still used the Return, but we had to carry a toilet with us when we advanced or retreated. Occasionally a green hand would actually use the thing, but only once. After all, the penalties were severe-the miscreant suffered ridicule from the rest of the crew and had to tote the toilet by hand two miles to the portal and clean it out.

Les Minerales

Safer working conditions alone can't account for the industry's leaps in productivity. In many enterprises, technology is the factor behind improved performance; but few industries have been less affected by automation and electronics than underground mining. In my experience, innovative incentives and flexibility in management-labor relations were the keys to getting coal out of the ground faster.

In 1981-82, in the Main East section of the Pinnacle Mine in Utah, our crew was lean and mean. There was a boss named Jed Giacolletto, an operator and helper to run the continuous miner (a monstrous machine resembling a 50-ton steel lobster), two roof-bolters, two shuttle-car operators, and an operator for the diesel mucker, a long, low front-end loader. No mechanic-we did our own repairs. No electrician-we spliced our own cables. Our hourly wages were the highest in the district. We got a cash incentive for each ton of coal we produced. As a result we mined at least 20 percent more coal than we would have otherwise. Although Pinnacle was small-not benefiting from economies of scale-our productivity was among the highest in the district.

At the end of swing shift (midnight), there was often some work that had to be done before the next production shift could start cutting in the morning. The oncoming graveyard crew already had to do rock-dusting, cleanup, and routine maintenance. If we left a big job for them, production in the section would be idled for an hour or more. So, at the end of the shift, Jed would start bidding:

"I need three men for two hours. I'll pay for three hours." Back then, that meant about $50 in overtime wages; today it would run closer to $75.

"Not tonight. Not worth it."

"Two hours? Forget it -1 have more money than I know what to do with anyway."

"How about two of you? It shouldn't take more than three hours, and I'll give you five no matter how soon you finish."

This sort of bartering between miners and bosses was a routine part of working at the Pinnacle Mine. We even had a labor black market in order to dodge overtime laws: We'd trade one Saturday of unreported work to get a subsequent four-day weekend.

The Pinnacle spot market once broke down on Jed's crew for two weeks. Each night we watched the time and shut the section down as early as possible. Jed made the choicest offers we'd heard, but there were no takers. We clung to the mantrip and drove at full speed over bumps and ruts, hopped out as soon as we cleared the portal, and ran for the lamphouse. We threw our lamps into the chargers. sprinted through snowdrifts and coal piles to the bathhouse, showered, changed, and piled into the van for the ride to town.

Why the mad rush and the rejection of overtime? One night we had randomly tuned in a faint AM station from somewhere in Texas, and there was a radio play of Les Miserables, starting each night after our shift ended. Normally, the entire crew except for the driver was stretched out asleep on benches in back of the van. Now, everyone hunched toward the front, straining to hear. Naturally, the episodes in the Paris sewers were the most fascinating.

In the 25-mine survey, size ranged from 15 workers to 887. Labor productivity of the eight smallest mines (average size: 26 workers) was 27 percent higher than that of the eight largest ones (average size: 398 workers). Of the 25, the highest-production mine was also the smallest. If physical or technical variables accounted for the difference, they were not evident in the survey. The small mines had a 10 percent advantage in "hours at face," but a 17 percent difference in seam height favored the large mines, and their roof quality was rated better. Vengeance's mine

A larger mine has other advantages. Overhead costs are lower, and the flow of coal is more consistent. Economies of scale should favor the evolution of big mines, especially now that coal is being shipped across continents and oceans to large buyers, rather than being sold to local consumers. But average size has dropped from 80 miners 10 years ago to fewer than 50 now.

This may be because the smaller the mine, the more flexible the work environment. Without a lot of organizational drag, crews are freer to come up with ways to boost productivity. One of the incentives we invented at Pinnacle was the Mine Record Dinner (MRD). Each time we set a new record (measured in cars of coal), the company took everyone, with spouses, to the restaurant of our choice. I was the unofficial crew strategist, so I believe it was superior strategy that made Jed's crew the clear leader in Total Accumulated Dinners.

When the MRD program started, the mine record was less than 130 cars per shift, and we didn't expect to get far beyond 140. Within less than a year, we had pushed past 220. One hundred sixty cars was a good day, but nothing to brag about. I doubt I'll live to see again so much leverage exerted by a few platefuls of lobster and filet mignon.

After the first records were set, it became clear that further improvement would require keeping the section running through lunch. Lunch shutdowns cost far more than 30 minutes of full-speed coal cutting. A full stop threw off rhythm and coordination; several minutes were required to walk each way to the kitchen; our machines broke down more readily after they had been sitting still. Lunch was costing dozens of tons of coal per shift.

The trade we worked out with Jed was embarrassingly good. We added 18 percent to our gross pay, without spending an extra minute at work! For an hour of overtime pay each day, all we had to give up was half of our lunch break. We didn't just shut down for 15 minutes instead of 30. Through careful planning, we kept the section running smoothly while one or two of us at a time went for lunch. None of the other crews opted for this routine; old traditions die hard. During record attempts other crews ran through lunch, but continual practice gave us an advantage.

Incentive schemes have spread rapidly during recent years. Many mines give bonuses based on attendance and safety performance, as well as tonnage. But for "free-rider" reasons familiar to game theorists, incentives don't work well in large groups where teamwork is essential and individual performance is difficult to monitor. That's why the most dramatic difference between large and small mines is in bonus schemes. The average annual bonus in the survey's 8 smallest mines was more than 5 times that of the largest 8. The 18 mines with incentives produced 35 percent more than the 7 without them, and bonuses averaged 14 percent of payroll.

A West Virginia mine cited in the survey uses a novel means of reducing costs and maintaining a constant production rate. The bonus scheme is revealed in a table footnote: "Crew produces required tonnage and takes rest of day off." Further descrip- tion appears in the text: "The company had a limited coal market, and so when the unionized crew reached 800 tons for the shift, they could go home with pay. They usually got off work two or three hours early. The men said they preferred this because it was a reward received the same day instead of waiting a week or a month. The free time was considered more valuable than money."

A small investment by the company can go a long way. At Thanksgiving outside Pinnacle, a company pickup was parked next to the portal. The accountant stood in the back and handed each of us a large turkey. For Christmas, we got a turkey, a smoked ham, and a fifth of scotch. The effect of such gifts on morale cannot be measured, but undoubtedly they paid for themselves many times over in hauled coal.

I had a year's experience when I applied to work for Mid-Continent in Colorado, so I was hired immediately, in the middle of a winter month. But there were odd delays in scheduling my physical and completing the paperwork. I didn't start work until the second or third day of the next month. I thought nothing about it-until vacation time the next summer. We were supposed to earn a day of paid leave for each month of employment, so when I got seven days instead of eight, I assumed someone had goofed. At the payroll office I was told that there was no mistake.

"Read the contract."

"I read the contract. One day per month. I've been here eight months."

"Check it again. You get one day for each complete calendar- month."

Upon checking with other miners, I found that they had all been hired in the first week of a month.

"That's Mid-Continent for you." they shrugged.

I'm not the vindictive sort, but I made certain I reduced production by at least one man-shift worth of coal. Stingy management tactics may backfire more surely underground than anywhere else. There are 1,001 ways for a miner to reduce productivity without risk of detection.

According to interviews with management in the 25 Wonder Mines, the primary determinant of productivity is not on the following list: union status, salary, physical mining conditions, incentive schemes, or particular machinery and methods. In every mine, an attitude of respect and trust, a "sense that the employees were the company's most valuable resource" was considered the overriding factor by both labor and management. Part of the trust came from a blurring of the line between the two. Trust and cooperation grew not from feel-good seminars or .quality circles" but from simple things such as a single bathhouse used by both bosses and miners. Open sharing of information on company strategies and finances is another way miners are included in overall operations.

One manager of a set of three mines told me, "There are lots of coal seams around this country, but none of them are worth a damn if you don't have good miners to get the coal out onto the ground." This manager said that the company was about to exceed a million tons per year, with a workforce that has grown from 30 to 100 in four years, and he wondered how he was going to maintain morale. "I've seen some good mines that have gone bad right after they cleared a million tons. I'm not sure why it is, but I think it has to do with becoming too bureaucratic." I asked whether having three small mines, rather than putting everyone in one big operation, could help avert the negative side of growth.

"Yeah, that's one reason for doing it this way. We give each mine a lot of autonomy, so people have a stake in how the place runs. And I'm keeping my door open. I have people coming in here several times a day for one thing or another. It takes a lot of time, but it's worth it." Underground economies

Coal mining has responded so well to adversity that few outside the industry know it has been through hard times. During a period of decline in the price of the product, miners' incomes have risen, work conditions have improved dramatically, and cooperation between labor and management has been better than ever. Of course, there are counter examples. A bitter strike against the Pittston Coal Group, involving 1,700 UMWA miners in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky, has been raging for eight months. The first major strike in the coalfields since 1985, it may prove to be a make-or-break struggle for the UMWA; it has already demonstrated the folly of separating managers from miners. The Pittston Group, which sparked the strike by trying to cut back health benefits, is based in Greenwich, Connecticut, a world away from the Pittston mines.

But overall, industry statistics tell a story of not just survival, but success. Part of the gain in productivity can be traced to labor market conditions. Because of declining employment, mine operators can be more selective, and turnover bas dropped to almost zero.

Perhaps the root of coal's success is that it has not been protected from competition. Lack of import barriers is not due to noble forbearance on the part of the industry, but to the fact that the U.S. imports a negligible 0.002 percent of its supply.

Coal has not fed at the public trough of price sup- ports and bailouts for several reasons. Operators are still tainted with the old robber baron image; coal is not viewed as an essential commodity the way grain is; the industry is on the defensive over environmental issues; and miners don't occupy the warm, fuzzy place in the national heart that say, farmers do. Perhaps this status is the source of miners' spirit and independence. In any case, when coal miners saw falling prices, they got the message that they were not going to be rescued. Many mines and some companies have gone bankrupt during the past decade, but no single failure has been close to the proportions of Penn Central (or Lincoln Savings and Loan).

We may not need to go to Japan to learn more effective management; some good lessons can be found underground. The clear message from the most productive mines in the country is:

* Find ways to reward people for doing superior work, in the smallest groups possible.

* Take a tip from General Patton and tell people what to do, then let them figure out how, to get it done. Don't give orders for the sake of "being in control" or for a lack of anything better to do.

* Regularly share company plans and financial information with workers, even if at first they don't understand everything. Miners, few of whom have Har- vard MBAS, are surprisingly astute when they see their own fortunes at stake.

* Encourage employees to have fun and to treat their work as a challenging game. Making production into a sport captures a worker's attention and stimulates creativity.

* Give employees more trust than they seem to deserve, and never, never try to cheat or deceive them.

* Always give people a little more than they bargained for. Small favors from an employer yield high returns.

* Remember that "technological advance" can come in the form of better methods of learning, communicating, and thinking-not just in new machines and materials.

* Don't cling to unnecessary rank and title distinctions. A friendly, accessible manager will earn more genuine respect than one who hides behind a huge desk and a platoon of receptionists.

It may sound like trite pop-psych, but the operator of one of the 25 surveyed mines said, "I find that people always live up to your expectations, no matter how low or how high they are." That attitude may be the best explanation for how coal mining has gracefully weathered a tough market and emerged in better health.
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Author:Gray, Peter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1989
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