Feds will expand Spokane mining research laboratory

Federal officials plan to double the number of employees at Spokane’s mine research laboratory, adding more than 40 positions and creating a new Western district office for worker-safety programs.

The new jobs will come in two phases. This year 15 jobs will be added to the office and lab at 315 E. Montgomery Ave. The lab will be renamed the Spokane Mining Research Division.

In 2015 the Spokane office will become a Western division office for the occupational safety programs run by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. That second phase could add at least 25 more jobs, said Diane Porter, deputy director of NIOSH.

NIOSH is a national agency that provides research and workplace safety and health recommendations. It has no regulatory power, Porter noted.

The Spokane safety office was part of the Bureau of Mines and employed nearly 200 workers, serving as a Western regional service center.

In 1996 Congress eliminated the bureau, with the remaining workers assigned to NIOSH, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2002 the local office had 90 workers. Since then, attrition and federal budget battles have left the office with fewer than 40 workers. It currently has 33 positions, said Porter.

Federal officials want to add jobs here as a way to focus efforts on the particular mining needs and issues of Western mining companies, Porter said.

The two mine safety divisions now run by NIOSH are in Pittsburgh.

“A Spokane division makes it easier to get to facilities and operations of mining employers in the West,” Porter said.

The expansion next year, as Spokane becomes a division headquarters, means Spokane staff will also coordinate safety programs beyond mining, including in oil and gas, farming, fishing and forestry, Porter said.

Spokane’s division staff will work with the Western NIOSH field offices in Denver and Anchorage.

Porter said the first phase of expansion is already funded. The Western district office funding is part of the administration’s 2015 budget, which has not been approved by Congress.

Both Porter and Rich Hadley, CEO and president of Greater Spokane Incorporated, said Washington state Sen. Patty Murray played a strong role in moving the bureaucracy to see mining safety as a critical need.

“Sen. Murray and her office were the head of the spear” working with the community in helping get the NIOSH support needed to bring back positions to the Spokane office, Hadley said.

That effort has been underway for years and included support from other lawmakers, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Among the first 15 new jobs, 10 will be mine safety researchers, four will be pulmonary-respiratory researchers and two will be support staff.

Starting salaries for those federal jobs range from $34,300 to $85,400 per year.

This is the second year in a row that NIOSH has added staff in the Spokane office. In 2013 it added seven people, including newly hired researchers focusing on projects at the Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan, Idaho.

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