Could the federal shutdown set back mine safety progress?

Oct 7, 2013

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is inevitably affected by the standoff in Washington. MSHA is partially open with less than half the staff.

A letter from the Department of Labor Solicitor Patricia Smith, indicates that MSHA is operating with less than 1,000 employees, that's less than half the full staff. The shutdown has cut back the number of mine inspectors—those working at the mining academy and field offices where specialists evaluate ventilation and roof control plans.

Since the federal shutdown, communication with the MSHA is limited. They did, however, issue a release Monday to urge mine operators to follow regulations and ensure safe practices, and to remind miners to report hazards.

One mine safety advocate worries the shutdown will only further clog the system.

Sam Petsonk is with the non-profit organization Mountain State Justice. He’s directing a new project called the Miners’ Safety and Health project.  

Petsonk grew up in Morgantown and was working for the late Senator Robert C. Byrd when 29 men died at the Upper Big Branch disaster. Petsonk says the disaster was a wakeup call to action.  

“The federal system had failed to prevent that disaster," Petsonk said. "I recognize that unless there is real time information provided by miners to mining companies and to the state and federal regulators the system can’t identify and stop this sort of challenges that mines encounter.”

In 2010, the late Senator Robert C. Byrd secured more than $22 million to help the federal officials deal with a mine safety appeals backlog. While MSHA has made progress, Pestonk points out that even with full staff, it’s tough to keep up.

“MSHA has an immense amount of work to do," he said. "They do it well but this type of cutback were it to last for any amount of time would threaten the progress we’ve made on mine safety in this country.”

Federal law requires underground mines to be inspected four times a year, while surface mines are required to have two inspections per year.

According to a letter from Assistant Secretary Joe Main, the limited staff has cut back on ‘routine’ inspections. It appears that staff is limited to work on inspections of targeted mines, investigations of accidents, miners’ complaints, mine sample analysis, building securities, information technology support, mine safety plan approvals, and mine emergency readiness.

This concerns Petsonk.

“The shutdown may jeopardize this type of critical oversight and enforcement activity," he said. "I’m not suggesting there’s any emergency that should alarm miners or their families. But unfortunately during a lull in oversight, some operators have in the past have been tempted to make changes or shortcuts without proper third party review or approval by MSHA.”

MSHA investigations indicate that these types of activities have contributed to deaths in the past.

MSHA has a layered approach to oversight and with some of those layers missing; Petsonk worries that any progress in improving mine safety culture will be jeopardized. 

“We have this complex system because this is a complex industry," he said. "The checks and balances when they’re not in place unfortunately oversights can arise and unprincipled operators or unprincipled actors can try to take advantage and the consequences of that could be tragic it’s something that we don’t’ need to deal with. It’s a risk that we don’t’ need to incur.”

Three coal miners, including one from West Virginia, died this past weekend:

  • On Friday 62-year-old Roger R. King from Moundsville was killed after an accident at CONSOL Energy's McElroy mine in Marshall County. He was employed as a longwall maintenance coordinator. King, who had 42 years of mining experience with 17 years  at the McElroy mine, was killed while assisting in setting up the panline on a new longwall face. King was standing in the face conveyor, facing the tailgate side of the section, when the accident occurred. According to a release from MSHA, a pulley was attached to a section of the conveyor and a scoop was being used to pull the chain. The device failed, came loose and struck King in the back of the head. 
  • Another miner died on Saturday at the Pattiki mine in Illinois. MSHA said this accident involved a golf cart used to travel underground. The golf cart rolled over and pinned the victim underneath. 
  • At the Bridger Coal mine in Wyoming, a dozer operator was killed on Sunday. MSHA said the dozer went over a 150-foot highwall. The operator began searching for the victim at the end of the night when no one heard from the miner. The dozer and victim were found at the bottom of the highwall.

MSHA Assistant Secretary Joe Main said this is the first time in 10 years that the mining industry has suffered three deaths three days in a row.

“Three miners killed on three consecutive days is extremely troubling,” said Main. “The fact that that this occurred over the weekend, when there may be a greater expectation an MSHA inspector would not be present, is a red flag.”

Meanwhile, the annual TRAMS or Training Resources Applied to Mining Conference is scheduled for next week in Beaver. But that’s not likely to happen if the shutdown continues.

Safety professionals from around the country typically attend the TRAM conference.

Petsonk said despite the shutdown, and short staff, miners would do well to remember that they still have the right to refuse and report unsafe conditions.

“During the shutdown the message to miners is the same as it always is," Pestonk said. "The system will not work without your active involvement. Keep your eyes open file complaints participate in the system. The Mine Act is intended to work only with your support and it’s critical during the shutdown as it always is perhaps even more so.”

MSHA was not available for further comments because of the government shut down.