County report: ‘safest year ever’ for mines

Fourth generation miner Jay Sanders operates a shovel at Minntac. Plant officials are dwarfed by the equipment at the Mustang Plant at United Taconite in Forbes.

Eric Killelea

Hibbing Daily Tribune

Earlier this year, St. Louis County Safety and Risk Management Director Joe Austin announced a slight increase in both total production and number of jobs. But more notable was his reporting zero fatalities and a drop from 18 to 14 incidents of “lost time or serious accidents” in 2018 resulting from a “continued commitment to the safety of all those who work in the mining industry in our shared goal,” according to his annual report.

Mine inspector Derek Harbin called it the “safest year ever for employees in terms of injuries to workers” in the county’s history of reporting.

Austin and Harbin first presented the report in April to County Commissioners. They praised the work of all partners in the mining industry for their work to identify and eliminate potential safety risks in the six active mining operations, including ArcelorMittal Minorca, Hibbing Taconite, Keetac, Minntac, Northshore and United Taconite.

In June, County Commissioner Mike Jugovitch, whose grandfather and father worked in the mines on the Iron Range before he found employment at a Hibbing Taconite operation in Buhl, thumbed through the annual report in good spirits.

“It’s been 11 years since we’ve had a fatality in the mines on the Range,” Jugovich told the Hibbing Daily Tribune. “That’s something we shoot for day-in and day-out. It’s a great stretch of time and the companies should be commended for the accomplishment.”

The commissioner noted that when the report was first penned between 1905 and 1910, an average of 73 people died in mining accidents in the county. There have been no mining fatalities in the county since 2007 and the 14 injuries ranks as the second lowest figure ever recorded.

His applause came several months after the County Board voted unanimously to appoint Harbin to replace Steve Manninen as their new mine inspector. Commissioners celebrated Harbin’s swearing-in ceremony during a meeting at the Babbitt City Hall. He was the latest county inspector since the position was created more than 115 years ago.

Harbin, who grew up in Grand Rapids was pursuing a degree in elementary education at the University of Minnesota in Duluth when he decided to become a heavy equipment operator at Magnetation. After climbing the ladder to a supervisory role, he shifted to the company’s safety department. He would later take on a consultant role for a Mountain Iron company which specializes in environmental, health and safety work, before being hired as the county’s assistant mine inspector in 2017.

According to Minnesota statutes, the county mine inspector is responsible for checking active mining properties at least once every 90 days. During his stops, he conducts accident investigations as needed, as well as inspects fencing around the 285 inactive mines at least annually.

“The mine inspector works in tandem with the mine companies to make sure every one of us and our family members who step onto the properties are safe,” Jugovich explained.

In addition to the annual safety update, Austin’s report noted that mining activity “showed a strong and steady production schedule for both St. Louis and Itasca counties.”

Some examples include: there were a total of 40.9 million tons of taconite shipped from area operations in 2018, a 3.7 percent increase from 2017.

Also, mining companies added 10 positions for a total of 3,954 jobs in the counties. The total hours reported for area mining operations was 8.4 million for the year.

“These positive numbers mark two years of steady production and a significant improvement compared to the two consecutive years of reduced production and mining related employment in the area reported in 2015 and 2016,” Austin said in the report.

Members of the County Board and the Mine Department agreed with the report’s notion that “progress continues to be made by several area operations toward the objective growth during the coming years” involving PolyMet’s NorthMet copper-nickel-precious metals mine project and Twin Metals which aims to construct a precious metals mine near Ely.

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