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Steve Hart

Principal Engineer, DOSH Mining & Tunneling Unit

Steve Hart

Mining and tunneling are dangerous industries and Hart knows them inside and out, combining his knowledge with a passion for safety.

Resume: Hart worked as a hard-rock miner and blaster at the famous Sixteen to One gold mine in Northern California in the 1960s. He became principal safety engineer for the Mining and Tunneling Unit in January 2002. Prior to that, beginning in 1999, he was senior engineer responsible for the new San Bernardino M&T District Office. He joined the California State Mining and Tunneling Unit, Cal/OSHA, as a field engineer in 1994 in Fresno. From 1970 to 1994, he worked as a manufacturing engineer, supervisor and manager for a variety of manufacturing companies in Northern California. From 1967 to 1970, he worked as an aerospace design engineer in Southern California. He lives on the original homestead claimed by his great-uncle in 1852, outside Oroville. He enjoys photography, fly-fishing, gold panning and lapidary work.

Schools: He received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from San Jose State University in 1967 and an AA degree in engineering from City College of San Francisco in 1964.

Favorite Quote: “It’s not whether you get knocked down… it’s whether you get up again that matters….”

Q&A  

What are the top issues in California occupational safety and health today?

It is important for California to stabilize the funding for Cal/OSHA. Over the past 10 years, the program has alternated between “feast or famine” and with quality employees so difficult to find, a more stable approach to funding would yield a more consistent workforce.

 

Injury and illness rates continue to decrease, with some exceptions. What's the next great leap forward in occupational safety and health?

Mining and tunnel construction are still in the “very high danger” category with regard to worker safety. In mining, there appears to be no “imminent breakthrough” on the horizon. Everyone involved in mining has to preach the same message: It can happen here and it can happen before the end of the shift.

In tunnel construction, the advent of the tunnel-boring machine has revolutionized tunnel construction and vastly improved tunnel safety, especially when water and flammable methane gas are imminent hazards on a project. This technology will continue to become even safer in the coming years.

 

One group – Hispanics/Latinos -- suffers a disproportionate number of injuries and illnesses. Why? How should California address this problem?

In our own accident investigations, the root cause is often either inadequate training or a reluctance to speak up to improve the work methods. Workers not only have to be thoroughly trained in a language they can understand, but they also must be empowered to speak up and express their fears about doing work that exposes them to serious safety hazards.

 

The Injury and Illness Prevention Program is the basic safety requirement for California employers. Now Fed-OSHA is working toward adopting its version of this requirement. Does the California IIPP standard need revision or is it fine the way it is? And if it needs revision, how so?

On paper, the IIPP is one of the finest instruments we have in focusing both employers and employees on safety. We still see many companies that have a well-written IIPP on the shelf, but that is where it stays. Every document can and should be reviewed periodically to see where it can be improved and refocused. But if it remains on the shelf the rest of the year, it does little good to improve worker safety.

 

If you could change anything about Cal/OSHA, what would it be?

                a. Should enforcement be increased?

                b. Communications

                c. Training for inspectors

Hiring and maintaining adequate numbers of field engineers is critical to the successful regulation of a particular industry. With a stabilized workforce of inspectors, the training process becomes truly cumulative and increases every year. Thus, the number and quality of inspections will naturally increase over time, and California’s workforce will benefit greatly in the area of safety.

 

Some observers say injury and illness rates are higher than they appear because employers find ways to hide injuries, or not record them. Do you agree this is a serious problem and if so, how should it be addressed?

Although we do find evidence that employers occasionally omit accidents from their paperwork, when an inspector talks with the employees during an inspection, we generally learn about the issues and are able to follow them up. It would be difficult for such a scam to become widespread because we are required to return to every surface mine at least once a year, and to every underground mine at least four times a year (tunnels require at least six inspections each year).

 

California  has a long history of crafting groundbreaking regulations that the rest of the country eventually picks up. What's the next one?

The Mining and Tunneling Unit has almost completed major rewrites of both the tunnel safety orders and the mine safety orders. There are no “bombshells” anticipated, but rather an acknowledgment that technology is changing rapidly and that it needs to be regulated appropriately to make sure California workers go home at night, rather than to the morgue.

 

Will AB 2774 resolve the problems cited by DOSH on serious violations and provide a more equitable appeals system? If not, how should it be reformed?

It appears that AB 2774 has resolved many problems. It raemains to be seen how the Appeals Board will evaluate this new legislation, but both employers and our inspectors have refocused on serious hazards and how to abate them. That is where the emphasis should have been all along.

 

Should DOSH approach enforcement with more of an eye toward achieving compliance, rather than looking for violations to cite? And if so, would such an approach work?

People still fondly recall the “friendly days,” when the first 10 General Citations were without penalty. Today, many inspections involve an adversarial tone, because there is so much money “on the line.” The present system still rewards those who are sincerely trying, and penalizes those who are not supportive of worker safety. But creative approaches to obtain voluntary compliance are always welcome.

 

What should Cal/OSHA do to help small employers create safe workplaces and comply with Title 8 regulations?

Most of us are driven to help employers by giving talks, safety seminars, safety consultations, and by giving freely of our time to help explain complicated regulations so different options can be evaluated. We are always looking for better ways to do this, because we know the key to safety is to create voluntary compliance . An inspector who comes once a year has far less impact on the safety culture of a company than a manager who sells it to the employees every day of the year.

 

What about safety do employers struggle with the most?
Probably one of two answers affects almost all employers:

  1. One group (usually the smaller employers) struggles with knowing exactly what is required by the regulation. If they just knew who to call to get the answers they need, they would be happy.
  2. The second group (usually the larger employers) struggles with the issue of staying within the law while simultaneously maintaining high production levels. We see some of the most creative ideas born when employers put their mind to solving both problems at the same time.


Are there reliable and knowledgeable training people available?

Yes. The key is to find trainers who are passionate about safety and then direct them to teach both specific and general curriculum to develop a “safety culture” where everyone looks out for the other person. Management “buy-in” of these concepts needs to be very high, so the process continues after the trainer goes home.

 

What kind of training is the most crucial for employers to provide?

Training that empowers employees to make safe decisions. If an employee feels that the job can be done safer with a crane, rather than with five people lifting it into position, he/she should be empowered and feel comfortable to call “time out” for a planning session. Just having the opportunity to make input without being ridiculed is a very powerful motivator, and it keeps everyone feeling that they are part of the team.

 

What else do you read to get your occupational safety and health information?

I frequently seek the advice of experienced individuals who have done the job before. There is a wealth of “retired talent” available to most of us, and using this talent is good for everyone.

 

How did you get started in safety? Was there any particular experience in your career that triggered your interest in safety? What keeps you interested?

I watched while an employee lost two fingers in a punch press because I failed to understand the real and present danger to which he was exposed. Thereafter, I made it my business to learn everything my brain would hold about safety to ensure that no other employees would suffer a similar fate.

I stay interested because I see the great contributions that Cal/OSHA makes to worker safety. Some employers see us as just another bureaucratic organization, but those who get to know us see that we give back much more than we ever take.

Most people don’t like getting stopped by a police officer for speeding, but when that same officer shows up when we are disabled at 1 a.m. in a bad section of town, we welcome them with open arms. Similarly, when we show up at 1 a.m. in a tunnel that is leaking methane gas, and we have a professionally calibrated four-gas electronic gas meter with us, both the employer and the miners are very glad to see us.

 

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