Therese Dunphy

June 1, 2011

Don’t Undermine Safety

By Therese Dunphy

The winds of change are blowing through the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) Small Mine Office (SMO). According to Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor, mine safety and health, the office is being decentralized with compliance assistance shifting from a national office to regional MSHA offices.

On its surface, the idea makes sense: take training closer to the people who need it. However, many operators are worried about having the people they rely on for training sitting across the aisle from those responsible for issuing citations about their shortcomings (i.e., the very items for which they may seek compliance assistance). If fear of reprisal keeps operators who need help from asking for it, the reorganization will have the opposite of the desired effect. The success of this initiative is particularly important during a time when federal budget cuts continue to impact operator training. MSHA is not conducting its regular noise and dust training workshops, and state training grants are not being fully funded. Historically, these have been two mainstays in the agency’s regional training program.

In the Administration section of the Mine Act, training and education provisions clearly indicate that the Secretary “shall expand programs for the education and training of operators and agents there of, and miners in… the recognition, avoidance, and prevention of accidents or unsafe or unhealthful working conditions in coal and other mines.” The Mine Act also notes, “The Secretary shall, to the greatest extent possible, provide technical assistance to operators in meeting the requirements of this Act and in further improving the health and safety conditions and practices in coal or other mines.”

To date, the SMO budget accounts for about half a percent of MSHA’s overall budget. At the same time, MSHA’s own data indicates the fatality rate for mines assisted by the SMO is nearly four times lower than the industry average for small mines. The agency’s investment in the SMO is one that has paid an enormous return on investment. Whether or not the agency considers them to be valid, operator concerns must be quickly addressed and mitigated. Otherwise, an atmosphere of fear could undermine a program that has significantly contributed to the safety of the nation’s aggregate operations.

3 Things I Learned From This Issus

1. Nearly a third of 2010 fatalities in metal/non-metal mines involved mobile equipment, page 19.

2. A minimum safe distance from a highwall is the same number of feet from the face as the face is high, page 25.

3. When designing a plant, consider travel paths in relation to conveyors to improve safety, page 21.

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