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MSHA has published a proposed rule that would amend its existing civil penalty regulations by simplifying the criteria for assessing health and safety violations and increasing emphasis on more serious safety and health conditions, thus providing “improved safety and health for miners.”

When fatalities in the metal/nonmetal section are up, you have to do something, I guess.

“This proposed rule would simplify the process and increase consistency, objectivity and efficiency in the citations and orders that inspectors issue. Furthermore, it would facilitate improved compliance and early resolution of enforcement issues,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.

However one person’s simplification is usually another’s complication.

MSHA’s proposal is structured to encourage operators to be more accountable and proactive in addressing safety and health conditions at their mines. Under the proposal, total penalties proposed by MSHA and the distribution of the penalty amount by mine size would remain generally the same; however, the penalty amount for small metal and nonmetal mines would decrease. That is a good thing.

The existing minimum penalty of $112 and the maximum penalty of $70,000 for non-flagrant violations would not change, but minimum penalties for unwarrantable failure violations – that is, violations that constitute more than just ordinary negligence – would increase to provide a greater deterrent for mine operators who allow these violations to occur. That is a bad thing, if those “unwarrantable failures” are a vendetta exercised by an overzealous inspector.

In early 2010, Main testified before Congress about the growing backlog of contested civil penalty cases. Among the solutions he proposed was making the evaluation and writing of citations simpler, more objective, clear and consistent. That did not take into consideration, however, that the backlog existed in the first place because operators were fed up with inspectors writing citations for things such as a clogged toilet or a speck of dust out of place, and decided to fight back by contesting questionable citations.

I encourage you to read the proposed rule and offer your own comments. You can find it here. The regulation identification number is 1219-AB72. Comments must be received within 60 days following publication in the Federal Register.