Developing a Health and Safety Plan for Cultural Resources Archaeology 1

On November 21, 1968, an enormous explosion at a coal mine in West Virginia killed 78 miners. Only 21 of the 99 men working that shift at the Farmington No. 9 mine escaped with their lives. The others could not be rescued immediately because of fires that raged following the blast.

This was the worst mining disaster in United States history. It was the third fatal disaster at the Farmington No. 9 mine. Between 1954 and 1965, at least 24 other lives were lost in these three disasters (Want to learn more about the Farmington disaster? Read this article from the West Virginia Archives and History website).

While miners had been dying in America’s mines for hundreds of years, the Farmington Mine Disaster was exceptionally bad. It happened at a mine that was notorious for taking lives. The Federal government had passed legislation allowing the Bureau of Mines to inspect facilities and issue fines for safety violations as early as the 1940s. Unfortunately for the miners at Farmington, these penalties did not immediately improve safety conditions for miners.

After the Farmington disaster, mine safety regulations were again increased. But mining companies did not comply and miners continued to die–as seen by the 1970 Hurricane Creek Mine Disaster that took another 38 lives. Safety remained second to profit for many mining companies. Unsafe work conditions remained.

Safety did not drastically improve until the Mine Safety and Health Act was passed in 1977. This Act allowed miners to report unsafe work conditions and allowed Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors to levy steep fines and order work stoppages.

What does this have to do with cultural resource management?

While mining and cultural resource management are two totally different fields, some of the same workplace conditions exist that have similar potential to threaten health and safety. Both miners and archaeologists:

1)         Perform strenuous, physically demanding work,

2)         Are oftentimes exposed to the elements,

3)         Work in close proximity to heavy machinery,

4)         Have workplace conditions that can change rapidly,

5)         Frequently travel in vehicles, and,

6)         Frequently work in remote locations far from a quality hospital.

Most importantly, we cultural resources archaeologists are contractors or subcontractors for other larger organizations or businesses. We are hard-pressed to produce results within a specific timeline and budget. Profitability is central to what we do.

After learning about these mining disasters, I had to ask: why didn’t mining companies make safer work conditions for their employees following these disasters?

Two answers: 1) money, and 2) corporate psychology.

What’s the Bottom Line?

If you want to stay in business, you will have to make a profit. The easiest way to do so is selling more product than you spend in expenses. Sounds straightforward, right?

But, when do profits become more important than human lives?

Prior to the 1960s, mining companies kept operating as they had for decades–digging up minerals, processing them for transport/sale, collecting profits, and paying their bills. With any luck, the ore could be sold for more money than it cost to dig it up. Every effort was made to maximize profits. Safety was second to profit.

In many ways, this is similar to how many cultural resource management, heritage conservation, and historic preservation companies operate today. The primary concern is finding ways to get more projects (and, concomitantly, more income) while curbing expenses. Profit margins are usually tight for every project, so controlling costs is paramount.

For CRM companies, safety training and HASPs are expenses that cost valuable manpower and money that could also be focused toward working on current projects or getting new projects. And the benefit from emphasizing safety cannot be easily quantified. As I’ve learned through experience with other CRMers, many CRM company leaders believe safety is an unnecessary expense. After all, we all know our jobs and whatever we don’t know can be learned on the job.

But, just as American mining companies are starting to learn, you can actually make MORE money from a safe workplace. Safe employees have fewer injuries, which means fewer work stoppages and workman’s compensation claims. Workplace safety is also a selling point that can help land more cultural resources projects. Safe companies have lower insurance rates (Experience Modification Rates [EMR] and other workplace safety calculations can play an important role when consulting for large corporations that care about their public image or are heavily regulated).

So, what’s the bottom line– make money by increasing revenue through additional projects or by investing in well-trained, safer employees?

It’s All in Our Minds

The first step towards accident prevention is psychological. We have to cultivate a culture of safety that values and respects efforts to make the workplace safer.

This has long been understood in many occupational fields with the potential for serious injury. Archaeologists can follow the lead of the folks that work in mining–an industry that is currently undergoing a safety renaissance. While not all the developments in mine safety are good (particularly how the Mine Safety and Health Administration [MSHA] assesses hazards and tends to cavalierly distribute fines), but miners are safer now than they have ever been in the United States.

Mine safety has almost become a religion at many mines in the United States. Both mining companies and their contractors are forced to comply with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which enforces that anyone that works on mine property in the U.S. has successfully completed a mandatory mine safety course. Deaths and injuries still happen at mines, but they are extremely rare given how many people that are employed in mining.

This mindset reversal in the mining industry did not happen over night. It was partially through stringent legislation, but many mining companies also realized that emphasizing safety was a cheap way to cut down on financial penalties and work stoppages. Rather than working fast and loose, mining companies are realizing that preemptively maintaining a safe workplace is a financially sound mentality.

This same philosophy has not yet been embraced by many cultural resource management, heritage conservation, or historic preservation companies. Many CRM companies do not appear to value safety in the workplace. Unsafe work practices happen all the time. Little effort is expended to improve safety and little time is spent thinking about the potential hazards faced in the field.

While many CRM companies do not appear to consider workplace safety an important issue, some do. At the few companies that DO want to improve safety measures, a non-archaeology-related HASP is typically used. These HASPs and safety protocols co-opted from other industries are usually considered “good enough” and serve as the principal guidelines for the company.

This a good place to start, but it can be improved. The problem with using a non-archaeology HASP is that it doesn’t cover the things that happen to us out there in the field. Each HASP has to be specific. In order to sufficiently address workplace injuries, the HASP has to 1) outline tasks specific to each position, 2) summarize potential hazards, and 3) establish safe working guidelines that address those hazards. Few occupations have the same hazards as archaeology, so a non-archaeology HASP isn’t going to work for us.

Fixing the Problem

Developing a HASP specific to our industry is the best way to promote a safe working environment for folks working in CRM, heritage conservation, and historic preservation. Here are some ways we can start:

1)         Help promote a safe work environment- Safety is everyone’s duty. If you can’t change your company’s safety philosophy, you can change your own. Be safe at work.

2)         Strive to learn more about workplace safety- Our industry is diverse and it is impossible for each of us to know everything there is about all the different activities we do. But, you can always learn as much as you can about your own position and how to execute your own job more safely. Also, freely share what you know with others.

3)         Encourage your company to create a workplace-specific HASP- Each of us working on our own can do much, but, ultimately, it’s up to your employer to formally endorse workplace safety. Try to convince your supervisors of the benefits of a industry-specific HASP.

Learn from the mining industry

Archaeology isn’t the most dangerous industry in the United States. Nevertheless, many of us suffer workplace injuries that go largely unnoticed and unacknowledged. Mining used to be much more dangerous than it is now. The mining industry only changed after several, high-profile accidents resulted in dozens of lives lost and strong legislation.

Workplace safety also happens to be good for the bottom line. We don’t need deaths and injuries to happen before we change the cultural resource management industry. The first step is valuing safety in cultural resource management, heritage conservation, and historic preservation work. Developing a HASP is an extension of this philosophy.
I would really love to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.

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One thought on “Developing a Health and Safety Plan for Cultural Resources Archaeology

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