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ADMIRALTY ISLAND - Miners at the Greens Creek Mine work 11-hour shifts in a dark, noisy environment. They operate heavy machinery under loose rock that is regularly made looser by blasting.
And yet miners at Greens Creek managed to work a total of 600,000 hours last year without a single lost-time accident, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
David Lauriski, Assistant Secretary of Labor for MSHA, visited Greens Creek Monday to acknowledge the exceptional safety record of Greens Creek employees.
"For an underground mine, this is a remarkable achievement," said Lauriski, referring to the mine's 2003 safety record. He visited Anchorage on Wednesday morning and stopped in Juneau on his way back to Washington D.C.
"Underground mining is inherently dangerous, and these folks do a good job dealing with that," he said.
Lauriski said Greens Creek is a serious contender for this year's Sentinel of Safety award, given to eight mines in different categories around the country each year. The Mine Safety and Health Administration and the National Mining Association give the award.
The award, a golden statue of a mother and a child, is given to mines with the best safety record. According to Mine Safety and Health standards, an accident is any event that prevents a worker from returning to the mine to perform regular duties after treatment.
About 250 underground mines in the United States will compete against Greens Creek for this year's award, which is given in September, Lauriski said.
"Our vision is that everybody goes home every day to their families," Lauriski told the miners Monday evening, as he presented a certificate acknowledging the mine's safety record.
"You've taken a step that we want everybody else to take: accept responsibility for your own safety," he said.
Greens Creek, 18 miles south of Juneau on Admiralty Island, employs an average of 260 people year-round. One hundred and twenty of those employees work underground or in mine engineering.
The biggest risks in underground mines are rock falls and muscle strains, said Matt Gili, manager of the mining operation.
About 1,400 people work in the mining industry in Alaska. With 600 employees, the Red Dog mine, an open-pit operation in northwest Alaska, is the largest mining operation in the state. Greens Creek is the largest underground mining operation in the state.
In 2002, the incident rate for injuries in the Alaska mining industry was about on par with the national average, said Dean Rasmussen of the Alaska Department of Labor. The incident rate is measured in cases per 100 workers, and in 2002 it was 4.2 in Alaska, 4.1 nationwide.
Greens Creek continuously upgrades its equipment, said Gili. Remote-operated equipment, such as a $500,000 mucker operated by Kelly Kilian Monday afternoon, greatly reduces the risk of injury by falling rock, Gili said. A mucker is a machine that removes rock from an area after it is blasted.
Lauriski, who spoke with Kilian as he operated the machine, said it was the first such remote operation he had seen in any of the mines he's visited since he was appointed by President Bush in 2001.
In addition to having good equipment, Greens Creek spends a good amount of time training its employees, Gili said. But the miners themselves are the primary reason few accidents happen.
"They're a very responsible group of people," Gili said. "You might think they're a bunch of rough miners, but they're a bunch of family men, they have kids and own homes. They're interested in staying safe."