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MSHA Kicks Off Third Initiative in 14 Months to Stem Fatality Trend

  • August 20, 2015

After two failed attempts to stop a trend showing an increased number of fatalities in the Metal/Non-Metal (M/NM) sector of mining, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has launched a third initiative — this time, clearly intending a different outcome.

“I think everyone is going to see an increased enforcement effort from MSHA,” agency chief Joe Main told attendees at a conference call on August 5, following the death of three M/NM miners just two days earlier. Main said the fatalities were among five that had occurred in M/NM over the past month, bringing to 52 the number of M/NM miners who have been killed since October 2013. MSHA kicked off the renewed enforcement effort on August 10.

Besides stepped up enforcement in June 2014 and again in February 2015, MSHA increased its outreach and education and training efforts to try to stop M/NM fatalities. Those programs included so-called walk-and-talk activities, where inspectors focused miners’ attention on the causes of recent fatalities and distributed information on fatalities, including best practices to prevent them. All this will be done again. However, since those initiatives appeared to be inadequate, the agency has decided to boost its enforcement resources by reassigning 17 coal inspectors to M/NM and hiring 21 more M/NM inspectors.

During the August 5 call, Main and M/NM Administrator Neal Merrifield described how the renewed enforcement push would be carried out, particularly at operations where the fatalities occurred. Keying off MSHA’s summaries of deaths that have occurred this year, Merrifield said inspectors will be evaluating mines to see if “maybe best practices were not followed at these locations.” If so, the mines will be considered for impact inspections. Impact inspections were begun following the Upper Big Branch-South underground coal mine explosion in April 2010 to focus on mines having an unusually high number of compliance problems.

Main stated his agency would “revisit” the latest fatalities to determine common causes, a reference to MSHA’s five-and-a-half-year-old “Rules to Live By” fatality prevention initiative. The purpose of the program is to spotlight the most commonly violated MSHA standards associated with fatalities. “There may well be an updated version of Rules to Live By as a result of that,” Main said in response to a question.

Besides beefing up its enforcement resources, MSHA plans to step up outreach to M/NM operators, with special attention to mines with fewer than 10 employees, and to reach out to the M/NM community at large. Training personnel from the agency’s Education and Policy Development (EPD) Directorate also will be more fully engaged. According to Merrifield, EPD staff has been given a list of 100 operations to visit. He did not identify the mines or explain the listing criteria.

In asking for their help, Main called on operators to conduct more rigorous workplace safety examinations and assure that individuals performing them are competent. The agency issued policy guidance in July, which, in part, suggested that supervisors, rather than rank-and-file miners, conduct such examinations as a best practice. MSHA appears to be requiring operators to use supervisors for workplace examinations even though there is no such requirement in the regulations. The Assistant Secretary also repeated guidance MSHA issued in May, urging operators to develop and implement safety and health programs. He also emphasized the need for miners to be trained on hazards and how to avoid them.

Information on recent fatalities, a press release announcing the latest initiative and a letter to stakeholders can be found on MSHA’s website at http://www.msha.gov/fatals/summaries/PreviousSummaries.asp and http://www.msha.gov/media/press/2015/msha-downloads.asp.

In other MSHA news, outreach meetings are underway for coal stakeholders on Phase II of the agency’s respirable coal dust regulation and on its final rule governing proximity detection devices. Six meetings have been held with three more scheduled (August 25 at the Mine Academy, Beaver, WV; September 1, Grand Vista Hotel, Grand Junction, CO; and September 3, Belville State College, Sumiton, AL).

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