PRODUCTIVITY AND SAFETY, NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE AT COAL OPERATIONS
Safety article by Harold Hough
“We can be safe or productive, not both.” Unfortunately, that has been the attitude of some mine management for years. In their minds, the more effort spent on safety, the less on producing. That is an idea that has been proven false by Peabody’s coal operations in Powder River, Wyoming. These are some of the safest and most productive mines in America. In fact, The North Antelope Rochelle Mine - the largest and most productive mine in North America - shipped a new industry record of 97.5 million tons of compliance coal in 2008 while remaining a recognized safety leader in the industry.
Although Powder River is blessed with 100 foot thick coal seams and ultra low sulfur content, it has been the mines, the workers, and management that have made these operations so safe and productive.
A major factor in the increased production and efficiency was the decision made by Peabody to modernize equipment and streamline the logistics of moving coal. Traditionally, transportation issues have been minimized. One transportation official once quipped, “the coal has been in the ground for millions of years. A few days getting it delivered won’t make a difference.”
Peabody, however, realized that the key was to get it to their customers on time and as inexpensively as possible. For that reason, Peabody installed new loading facilities capable of handling more than 120 cars per day in the newly reopened Rawhide Mine. It has a precision loading system that can load each railcar to within 500 pounds of its maximum specified weight. This allows Peabody to reduce the average loading time by 25%. The Rawhide Mine, located about 10 miles north of Gillette, shipped nearly 18.5 million tons last year.
In order to get the coal into the railcar as quickly as possible, Peabody also invested in equipment that mixed and processed coal faster so more trains could be filled. The North Antelope/Rochelle built a new crushing facility that improved blending, while loading more than one train at a time. Now the number of trains that are loaded annually at the operation would stretch from Los Angeles to Boston and back again.
But, dumping coal into a railcar wasn’t the total answer. In order to move those railcars faster, Peabody Transportation installed several electronic management systems that track and expedite coal shipments while keeping customers more informed about where they shipment is. This actually spurred the railroads to modernize their system in the following years. As a result, Peabody can economically ship its coal to customers as far away as Canada, Alabama, and Massachusetts.
SAFE AND PRODUCTIVE
Part of the success is the adult-to-adult approach that assumes that mine workers want a safe environment also. It encourages individual initiative, doesn’t force issues, or constantly look over the shoulder of the worker.
However, an important part of Peabody’s safety record is directly related to its productivity – investing in new equipment. Instead of “making do” with older, less safe equipment that can cause accidents, Peabody has invested in the newest equipment. This new equipment is not only safer; it is able to produce more coal at a lower price.
Nor, has this focus on productivity and safety been at the cost of the environment. The Caballo Mine won the National Award of Excellence in Surface Mine Reclamation
from the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2009. And, the North Antelope Rochelle Mine won the Industry Reclamation and Wildlife Stewardship Award from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department the same year.
Although some miners have argued that a mine can either be productive or safe, Powder River mines have proven that actually safety and productivity are different sides of the same coin. New equipment not only helps mines become more productive, it cuts down on accidents.