August 1, 2008
by Therese Dunphy, Editor-in-Chief
During a recent conference call with members of industry media as well as metropolitan newspaper organizations, Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Richard Stickler voiced frustration that members of the metal/non-metal mining community are deliberately tying up Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) personnel.
Stickler noted that as the agency is on track to issue 180,000 violations this year – a 28.6-percent increase over 2007 – it is dedicating a bothersome amount of resources to dealing with operators who contest these violations.
“We have identified over 200 operators that are contesting 100 percent of violations that MSHA is issuing,” Stickler said. “It appears to me that they are deliberately abusing the system and creating a backlog that is making it difficult for MSHA and for everyone involved.”
My curiosity was piqued, so I looked up contested violations at MSHA’s Web site (www.msha.gov) to see who is included on the list of rabble rousers. As I reviewed the data, I noticed that quite a few of these operators were assessed a single violation. After further analysis, I determined that 47 of the 210 operators contesting 100 percent of their violations had only one assessed violation. These operators comprised 22.4 percent of those discontents causing the agency such trouble. Since the data analysis proved to be so intriguing, I then calculated that 53 percent of operators contesting 100 percent of their violations had five or fewer violations and 75.7 percent had 10 or fewer.
To be fair, I also looked at the violators who had a higher number of violations and contested them all. Two of the 210 operators had 100 or more violations; both are coal companies. Between the pair, they are contest 896 of the 2,816 violations falling into the 100-percent contested category. The 10 operators challenging the largest number of violations in the 100-percent contested category generated a total of 1,453 violations – or 51.6 percent of the total. Only of these 10 was an aggregates operator.
Numbers can be interesting. Slice the data one way, and it creates one impression; slice it another way, and it may tell a very different story.
If the assistant secretary or agency personnel wonder why so many violations are being contested, they may want to consider the financial burden created by the new “flagrant violations” penalties, the changing definition of “significant and substantial,” and what constitutes “unwarrantable failure.” The threat of mine closure due to the establishment of a “pattern of violations” also amplifies the significance of each violation.
As long as we’re looking at numbers, let’s review some of those numbers. In 2006, a total of $35 million in fines were assessed. In 2007, nearly $75 million in fines were assessed. Based on the large increase in citations issued, that number could top $100 million this year.
What about the outcome? Are miners safer? The five-year average for metal/non-metal fatalities is 12.6 by mid-July. This year, that number is down to 11. This begs the question: are increased fines improving safety? Stickler has said that he believes the stick is an effective tool to improve safe mining practices. I, on the other hand, believe the industry’s long-term focus on safety is responsible. More importantly, what do YOU think? Send me an e-mail and let me know.