Operating across nine states, StonePoint Materials produces about 9 million tons of aggregate each year and offers asphalt production and paving services in Tennessee and Kentucky. Steve Arney joined StonePoint as safety director in 2016. P&Q caught up with Arney to learn about his approach to mine safety and hear about his own history in the aggregate industry.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I went back to school for a second degree in civil/environmental engineering. During my last two years of school, I was awarded a scholarship from the Tennessee Road Builders Association.
After graduation, I went to work for a heavy highway contractor roughly 45 miles north of Chattanooga. Several years later, this same contractor purchased some acreage in Chattanooga, opened a rock quarry and asked if I would take on a sales role and some emphasis on operations, as well. Florida Rock Industries acquired the quarry a year or two afterward, and the rest is history.
I owe so much to the heavy highway contractor and the safety director at Florida Rock for giving me a chance to start my career in the mining industry and safety.
You stepped away from the industry for a time before coming back in the last few years. What pulled you back in?
I believe you need to understand and learn your talents first, and then match that talent with the occupation. I love developing team culture, helping and listening to the individuals, and from that developing a friendship. I’ve found no better way of looking out for friends than being in safety.
I believe in what I do, and that desire to be part of building a safety culture brought me back into mining.
Do you notice any wholesale changes in how aggregate producers approach safety today compared to when you first got started in safety?
I do not necessarily notice or see significant wholesale changes on how producers approach safety. Producers might place more of an emphasis on the coaching/training of employees toward the specifics of safety – by that, I mean there is greater focus on the detailed safety areas such as fall protection, powered haulage, seat belts and lockout/tagout/try it.
But overall, in my experience safety has always been a priority, and I’m happy that it continues to be.
Tell us about your role as safety director at StonePoint Materials. Do you feel you bring any unique safety approaches to the job?
Yes, I feel I do bring a unique approach, founded on a few key elements: fostering teamwork, fostering mutual respect from all team members, and having ‘boots on the ground’ at our mines as much as possible.
My old boss showed me that you are never too good to walk a plant, so, in my humble opinion, the hands-on approach is the best way to create and reinforce safety culture. This means walking with the operators of the primary and secondary plants, doing a pre-shift with a haul truck operator, walking with the mechanics in the shop, etc.
I learn from them, they learn from me and we learn about each other. I always have had – and hope I continue to have – the hunger to learn about the people and the process, and it is something I hope that I share with our miners.
This all goes back to believing in what you do and having a common goal with the team. And that, at the end of the day is to safely crush rock and go home to our families.
Generally, how would you characterize the aggregate industry when it comes to safety?
I have a great friend who said to me years ago: ‘You guys take safety as serious as the Green Berets take their jobs.’ I took that as a compliment, and I think that accurately reflects the industry’s current approach to safety and the approach we need to continue to take.
Sometimes, outsiders try to give the mining industry a bad name as being unsafe, and while mining can be dangerous, the aggregate industry as a whole has a great safety record. That comes back to companies’ focus on safety and our miners putting it into practice.
So many producers today struggle to find good, quality employees. Do you think the industry’s ongoing hiring challenge has ramifications on jobsite safety?
While there is a need for miners in the workforce and we hope that talented candidates look toward our industry when job hunting, this does not affect our safety training and site safety.
Anyone hired into our industry is provided with in-depth safety training prior to beginning work, and they are continuously monitored moving forward. And if they do not meet our safety expectation, they won’t be around long.
We would never consider sacrificing safety for a larger workforce. We look for candidates that fit our core values and that are willing to work hard and work safely. This work is demanding from both production and safety perspectives, and that is one of the many reasons I respect the miners so much.
Reflecting back to your first stint in the industry, how would you compare the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) then versus now?
Interesting question. I recall that years ago the MSHA inspector underwent a lengthy training program and was required to have experience in mining before being turned loose in the field. It seems like some of these requirements have been minimized drastically – or just abandoned – in terms of the prior mining experience requirements. I think that is one of the most unfortunate developments I’ve seen with MSHA.
Our industry is unique and prior experience is invaluable, especially when reviewing safety and health at a mine site. While the new inspectors are no doubt able to gain that experience, it does take time – just like for our new employees – and at times this can lead to some unfortunate disagreements or confusion during inspections, or regarding standards.
I think this also ties back to the usual industry concern with MSHA’s consistency with interpretation and enforcement of the standards. While experience will cure some of the confusion, I don’t think it can all go away without rewriting some of the more vague MSHA regulations.
MSHA has made some nice changes, such as offering informal conferences as a first step in contesting a citation and publishing some additional compliance assistance materials the last few years when implementing new regulations like the metal/nonmetal workplace exam rule.