Regulatory Update MSHA

Kerry Clines

June 2, 2011

Small Mine Office

MSHA’s Joe Main talks about mine safety and his vision for the Small Mine Office.

By Kerry Clines, Senior Editor

Small mines make up about 50 percent of all mines in the United States. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the fatality rate at these small mines from 2000 through 2002 was two and a half times greater than the fatality rate of larger mining operations. In an effort to improve those numbers, MSHA created the Small Mine Office (SMO) in October 2002.

Joseph A. Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration.

 Since January 2003, specialists from the SMO have worked one on one with small mine operations to provide information on developing and maintaining simple, inexpensive safety and health programs, as well as good practices. The office also helps small mine operators with compliance concerns.

With the assistance of the SMO, approximately 9,100 mines (about 8,780 of this total were aggregate mines) developed a written safety and health program tailored to fit their individual mining operations by the end of 2009. During that time, small mine operators assisted by the SMO realized a huge reduction in fatal accidents. The fatal incidence rate dropped to 0.009 (a 75-percent reduction from the three-year average rate for 2000-2002). In comparison, small mines not assisted by the SMO had a fatal incidence rate of 0.035 (a 19-percent reduction).

The SMO, in consultation with the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (NSSGA) and other members of the mining community, developed a series of 52 weekly ToolBox talks that can be used by small mine operators and others to discuss safety and health issues with employees at individual operations. The topics range from personal protective equipment to maintenance safety to stockpile and highwall safety to reporting unsafe conditions. These ToolBox talks can be found on the MSHA Web site at

No one wants to see a good thing like the Small Mine Office change, but according to MSHA Assistant Secretary Joseph Main, change can be a good thing. “We’ve been planning changes in the small mines program for the last couple of years,” he says. “And to end the mystery about if we’re ending the small mine program, the answer is no. We’re actually taking an opportunity to build this program out. We’re transitioning it from a headquarters-based program to a field-based program, where we think we’ll have better continuity with the mining community and the mining industry. We think it will be more efficient and provide more opportunities to help mine operators.”

Main says the SMO helps small mines understand their obligations, both in terms of regulatory compliance and in building a safety culture. Examples of SMO assistance include the following:

• Necessary legal identity forms;

• Required training forms and plans;

• Applicable standards (including guarding);

• Accident reporting requirements;

• Quarterly reports;

• Required examinations; and

• Occupational noise sampling.

“I think guidance is one of the key things in developing programs that help the small operators understand what the compliance needs are and what they need to do,” Main says. “There are a lot of tools and information available — package programs that the small mine representatives can walk through with the small mine operators to let them know how they work and what they need to do to implement the programs. We’re developing a number of tools with the aggregate industry.

“I went throughout the country meeting with a number of state aggregate associations to talk about some of the initiatives we’re launching and to get their help,” Main adds. “They have a close connection with the aggregate operations and deal with them on a regular basis and have programs in place that can help get the word out to different small aggregate mines that operate throughout the country.”

With the NSSGA’s assistance, MSHA recently kicked off a 5002 sampling initiative. The initiative identifies whether or not miners are overexposed to certain types of airborne contaminants such as fuels and fumes. The initiative, Mine Operator Requirements under 30 CFR 56/57.5002, is available on MSHA’s Web site at

Another tool available from MSHA is the recently released Safety Pro in a Box. MSHA worked with the NSSGA to develop this resource for small mine operators and new mine operators. The toolbox is a collection of compliance and training materials produced by MSHA’s Mine Academy that are necessary to manage a health and safety program in compliance with regulations. Safety Pro in a Box is available on MSHA’s Web site at

“We worked to develop some specific training programs on guarding,” Main says. “It’s one of the most common conditions cited by our agency. We wanted to better educate everyone in the mining industry, including our inspectors, so we developed a power point presentation that pictorially shows what guarding needs to be in place. This is another tool available to the entire mining industry that helps guide mine operators in what it takes to comply with the guarding requirements.” Guarding Conveyor Belts at Metal & Nonmetal Mines is available on the MSHA Web site at

“One of the things I’ve tried to do since I’ve been here is to prepare the mining industry for what the expectations are,” Main says. “We’re not in the ‘gotcha’ business. We’re obligated to enforce the law, to do inspections, and to cite what we see, but we also try to develop a lot of training programs that will improve consistency and provide the best information we can to guide folks. We’re working with a number of aggregate associations to resolve some of the differences that have existed, provide better consistency, more clarity, and try to train everybody to the same training module. That’s my plan going forward.

“As long as I’m here, I have no plans to close the Small Mine Office,” Main adds. “I think it’s an essential part of what we do. I have plans to make it more efficient, to serve a better purpose, to be out there getting more of the job done. If my plan works, we’re going to have more resources helping more people, and more focus with the state aggregate associations to help get information and resources out to the mining community.”

MSHA’s Small Mine Office developed a series of weekly ToolBox talks that can be used by small mine operators and others to hold safety and health discussions with the employees at their mining operations. These ToolBox talks were developed in consultation with members of the mining community. To get the free app, enter into your browser.


MSHA worked with the NSSGA to develop Safety Pro in a Box, a collection of compliance and training materials produced by MSHA’s Mine Academy.  To get the free app, enter into your browser.

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