Arizona State Mine Inspector Joe Hart has devoted his life to Arizona’s mining industry.

“I was 18 years old the first time I went to work in a big mine,” Hart says. “But my dad always had mines. By the time I was old enough to eat, I was out working in his mines.”

Hart’s father, like many other Arizona dreamers, had gold mines near his boyhood home in Kingman.

“My dad always said, ‘This is going to be the one,’” Hart says, then offers a wry grin and whispers, “but there’s no gold in Arizona.”

The only gold in Arizona may be in prospectors’ dreams, but Arizona is home to some of the safest mines in the nation. For the past five years, Arizona’s mining industry has achieved safety rates that matched or were better than national averages for the industry.

“It’s like night and day,” Hart says. “When I first started in the mining industry, we used to take safety as a joke. Now, everyone understands how safety improves the industry both from an economic standpoint and for the people working in the industry.”

Numbers don’t lie

To see the dramatic improvement in the safety of Arizona’s mining industry, just look at the numbers.

“In the mining industry, it’s all about the LTIR: the lost time incident rate,” says Tim Evans, assistant state mine inspector.

The lost time incident rate is based on the percentage of incidents per 100 employees. To calculate the LTIR, the number of incidents is multiplied by 200,000 and that number is then divided by the number of labor hours at the company.

“In the 1970s, we had double-digit incident rates of 10 or 12,” Evans says. “Over the years, we worked to get it down into the single digits in Arizona. A decade ago, we were at a lost time incident rate of 3.0.”

And how is Arizona doing now? Get ready to gulp.

“Now, we cruise in at about 1.5,” Evans says.

A big impact on the dramatic drop in the LTIR was the passage of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act (MSHA) in 1977. The Act mandated improved training, which quickly improved safety in Arizona’s mines.

“It is such a different environment today,” Evans says. “My first day on the job in the early 1970s, it was, ‘This is rock. Break rock. Make go down hole.’ That was the extent of my safety training.”

Education digs deep

Today, the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office develops lesson plans, conducts classes and organizes safety conferences for mine safety education and training. The emphasis is placed on miner’s rights and current health and safety regulations to comply with MSHA.

“The number of hours that go into training employees at Arizona mining sites is phenomenal,” Evans says. “There is site-specific training, legally mandated training, regular safety meetings, risk assessments, critical tasks analysis and training in safe-job procedures. There is so much effort around training and identifying hazards that it is much safer to work at an Arizona mine today than it is to work in retail mercantile.”

And the industry is getting even better at self-policing. In 2016, the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office team performed 658 health and safety inspections, which identified 438 violations that called for corrective actions, but no cessation orders. That was 180 fewer violations than inspectors found in 2015 — a staggering 30 percent decrease in violations in one year.

“The biggest thing we got was mandated training that came with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act,” Evans says. “Leaders in the industry see the benefits in having well-trained, qualified employees and keeping them. Qualified employees are a very valued part of the mining industry, so having regulatory standards has become the biggest asset to the industry.”

What lies ahead?

Are there things that the mining industry can do to make it even more safe? That’s not an easy question to answer because of the variety of mines in Arizona.

“Everybody thinks it’s all about copper, but there is a lot more to Arizona’s mining industry than that,” Evans says.

Arizona currently has 685 active or intermittent mines, made up primarily of copper and aggregate mines. Aggregate mines primarily produce building supplies — sand, gravel, asphalt, smooth rock, decorative rock, etc.

“The Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office is responsible for open-pit mines, sand and gravel mines, gold mines, underground mines, smelters and solvent extraction and electrowinning mines,” Evans says. “Everyone just thinks of dirt-diggers, but the industry has become a lot more specialized.”

And because of that, inspectors have to be specialized, too. What they look at to improve the safety of the mines varies, depending on the type of property.

“I will inspect a flagstone operation in Chino Valley very differently than I will inspect an open-pit mine in Southern Arizona,” Evans says. “Depending on the hazards at each mine, we make sure the employees are well-trained and task-trained for their specific jobs and that the mine meets the codes that apply to that particular operation.”

And if you think it’s just a cursory inspection, think again. Evans says a mine inspection can take anywhere from several hours to several months. But it’s that attention to detail that has made Arizona’s mining industry a model in safety.

“I believe the most reliable indicator of future performance is past performance,” Evans says. “I used to scoff at people who suggested that we would get to an LTIR of zero. When I was first a miner, we were at double-digit incident rates. Now, we’re at 1.5. If we look at the trend, I think we will be down to 1.0 before I retire and the people I’ve trained will someday talk about 0.5.”

Will the improved focus on safety change the rough-and-rugged image of the mining industry?

“There’s a certain machismo about how dangerous it is to work in the mines,” Evans says. “But the truth of the matter is mines in Arizona are very safe and they’re only getting safer.”