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Eye On Mining: Record-breaking year for safety in local mines

DULUTH, MN — Every 90 days Derek Harbin walks through local mining facilities as the Mine Inspector for St. Louis County.

“Our scope is pretty broad when we walk through these facilities and we can identify any potential hazard that could harm one of these miners, and we provide recommendations on how to address the hazard and make their work area safer.”

All of the findings are then documented in an annual report. It’s essentially a snapshot of the industry, and has been released since 1905. So, we wanted to take a look back.

Nearly 100 years ago, in 1920, there were 26 fatal accidents.
Fast forward to 2018 and the most recent report shows zero fatalities, making it the safest year ever for employees in terms of injuries to workers.

“It’s a big deal where we’ve come from to where we are today, said Harbin. “We love to see those safety numbers continue to get better and that’s what we did see with the report this year.”

But, Harbin said the mine inspectors can’t do it alone.

“Everyone has to work collaboratively. It’s not just our government agencies that come in and tell you what to do, it’s really a team effort.”

That team includes the local unions.

“The union is used through hazard investigations, um, if there’s an incident or an accident or more importantly a near miss, we sit down with the company, kind of go over root causes, corrective actions and together we come up with solutions that hopefully prevent this from happening again,” said Bill Fredette, Safety Chair for Local 2705 representing Hibbing Taconite employees.

“We want to make sure no one gets hurt. As far as the ratings themselves go, it’s important that the community recognizes that we’re just not out there hurting people and just trying to do anything we can to get the job done,” added Fredette.

While there hasn’t been a fatal accident in the local mines since 2007, there were 14 lost time or serious injuries in 2018. That’s a number they are striving to bring down.

“The number one ongoing concern is always going to be training,” said Fredette. “Just trying to find the best way to get that message across to individuals.”

Because at the end of the day, Fredette and Harbin agree the goal is to keep workers safe.

“It’s more important that these people go home the same way they came.”

Some other highlights from the report include: 3,954 total people employed, nearly 41 million total tons of taconite products shipped, and 8.4 million total hours worked.

We also asked Harbin about new mining ventures for the state of Minnesota, such as PolyMet. He said the inspection and safety protocols will be similar to those they currently use at existing mines and they’re already working with the company as it progresses.

Kristen Vake

Anchor, Reporter

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