September 22, 2010
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration says that from April through August, the agency conducted “impact inspections” at 111 coal and metal/nonmetal mines throughout the country designated by the agency as having safety or health issues.
During that time, enforcement personnel issued 2,660 violations, 45 percent of which were classified as significant and substantial. These targeted inspections are part of an aggressive enforcement strategy launched in the wake of the worst mining disaster in almost 40 years.
“We have learned a lot of hard lessons since the explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine more than five months ago,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, in a prepared statement from MSHA. “While a number of mine operators receiving impact inspections have taken positive steps to clean up their act, some have refused to take seriously their responsibility to protect their workers and change their ways. We can’t be at every mine every day, but when we have reason to believe that a particular mine operator is putting miners’ lives at risk, we will not sit back and wait for a disaster to happen.”
Throughout the course of the impact inspections, MSHA enforcement personnel employed a number of tactics at some mines to catch operators off guard, including late afternoon or evening arrivals at the mine site, driving unmarked government vehicles, and seizing mine phones to thwart communication between mining personnel working on the surface and those working underground.
“We are striving to make our inspections more strategic, less predictable and more effective,” said Main.
Inspectors issued nearly 200 withdrawal orders at mines resulting from unwarrantable failures to comply with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, as well as eight Section 107(a) withdrawal orders due to imminent dangers. Some mine operations actually fared worse during follow-up inspections. For example, CAM Mining LLC’s Mine No. 28 in Pike County, Ky., received 42 citations and orders, with a “significant and substantial” rate of nearly 31 percent during its April inspection.
In a July inspection, the operator received 73 citations and orders, with an S&S rate of nearly 44 percent. Wilcoal Mining’s Tri-State One Mine in Claiborne County, Tenn., received 33 citations and orders, with an S&S rate of nearly 65 percent in April. In its July inspection, the operator was cited for 38 citations and orders, with an S&S rate of nearly 65 percent. As a result of 11 orders issued by MSHA, the mine was shut down.
MSHA initiated the new impact inspection program as the agency continues to work to reform the broken “pattern of violations” program, which was intended to identify persistent violators of safety standards and subject those mines to an enhanced enforcement regime. MSHA formally announced its intention to rewrite the regulations that govern the program last spring after it became clear that the program is not meeting its intended purpose. The current impact inspections are designed, in part, to catch problems that would otherwise be addressed by a functioning pattern of violations system.
Mine operations were selected for impact inspections based on specific criteria: poor compliance history, including high numbers of violations or closure orders; indications of operator tactics, such as advance notification of inspections that prevent inspectors from observing violations; frequent hazardous complaints or hotline calls; inadequate workplace examinations; a high number of accidents, injuries or illnesses; fatalities; and adverse conditions such as increased methane liberation, faulty roof conditions and inadequate ventilation.
“Clearly, there are still too many mine operators who have not learned the lessons of Upper Big Branch and continue to put miners’ lives at risk,” said Main. “They don’t yet understand the value of safety in our nation’s mines. That’s got to change. Our mission is to protect miners, and protect them we must.”