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Being Prepared for Health Inspections

Part of Being Prepared Means Understanding What MSHA is Supposed to Do.

By Avi Meyerstein

There are things you do every day to meet the twin goals of ensuring the safety of your mine environment and complying with MSHA's regulations. For many, this effort includes considerable work to meet MSHA threshold limit values or exposure limits, and minimize miner exposure to certain substances. After all of that effort, you want more than just your own satisfaction that you took the right steps. You want to be prepared for MSHA health sampling inspections so that MSHA's samples accurately reflect your compliance, or at least, so that you'll know where MSHA's sampling may have gone wrong.

Preparing for health inspections starts well before the morning when the inspector arrives. Of course, complying with the various MSHA exposure limits requires first determining which substances may be factors in your particular mine environment. For underground mines with mobile equipment running on diesel fuel, the metal/non-metal diesel particulate matter (DPM) standard or coal diesel emission standards are certainly of interest. Other mines may have to focus on dusts, fumes, silica or asbestos. Noise is also a potential issue in some mines.

If any of these substances are present in your mine, you probably already have some provision for conducting some sampling. For instance, in the metal/non-metal context, if you have environmental conditions in the mine that raise concerns about airborne contaminants, 30 CFR § 56/57.5002 may be relevant to  your operation. It requires that "[d]ust, gas, mist and fume surveys shall be conducted as frequently as necessary to determine the adequacy of control measures."

But, even if you do some periodic sampling to ensure compliance with the regulations, are you ready to sample on very short notice when MSHA announces an inspection? Ideally, when MSHA arrives to conduct a health inspection, the mine has someone inside or outside the company who can conduct sampling side-by-side with MSHA. For mines lucky enough to be located near outside experts, it may be easiest to seek out and engage qualified and reputable sampling contractors, who can be called upon on short notice to conduct this parallel sampling.

For more remote mines, there may well be an in-house capability to conduct sampling, especially for substances of likely concern (which, as noted, is often necessary to periodically monitor mine conditions, anyway). Whoever is conducting parallel sampling, the mine should be ready for MSHA health inspections with a plan in place so that this independent, parallel sampling can begin promptly, right alongside MSHA's.

Conducting parallel samples is always helpful, but in the real world, many mines will not have the luxury, budget or time to do so. And regardless, just as important as being able to present samples of your own, is collecting the information needed to ensure the reliability of MSHA's sampling?

As a result, part of being prepared means understanding what MSHA is supposed to do. When it comes to the highly technical world of sampling, following protocol is critical to obtaining accurate and reliable samples. Understanding what an inspector is doing (and supposed to be doing) during sampling means being familiar with not only the applicable exposure limits, but also with any applicable policy guidance, MSHA's Health Inspections Procedures manuals and MSHA's sampling field notes forms.

By the time the MSHA sampling begins, you can use this knowledge to observe closely how sampling proceeds. Especially if the operator is unable to arrange for independent, parallel sampling, watching carefully and documenting any deviations from protocol are key to addressing any issues MSHA may raise or citations it may issue.

Operators should be sure that the inspector is using the correct sampling equipment (and if not, take note).

  • Did he calibrate before and after sampling?
  • Did he follow the proper procedure in doing so?
  • What calibration equipment did he use, and was it in working order itself?
  • Was the sampler assembled correctly?
  • Did the inspector properly install it on the miners?

You likely will not be able to determine with precision the answers to all of these questions. You may only be able to observe generally what the inspector is doing but can't see the readout on his calibration device (or, as often occurs, he might do the calibration before he arrives at the mine). But, if something goes wrong or seems not to follow MSHA's procedures, take note.

As the inspector steps through the sampling process, you can use the MSHA manual(s) and field notes forms help you identify discrepancies.

  • Did the inspector properly instruct the sampled miners? The inspection manuals provide particular instructions, which are designed to help ensure the resulting samples are reliable.
  • In particular, did the instructor advise the miner about actions to avoid that might affect the sample? As the Metal/Nonmetal Health Inspection Procedures Handbook requires for DPM sampling, did the inspector "[e]mphasize the need for the miner to continue to work in a routine manner and report to [the inspector] any unusual occurrences or problems encountered during the sampling period?"
  • Was there anything unusual about the miner's work or mine conditions that day?
  • Did the miner report it?
  • Did the inspector note it?

When the sampling is finished, pay attention to how the inspector collects and handles the filters compared with the protocols. Some air samples can be negatively affected, for example, if the sampling cyclone is inadvertently turned upside down. Did the inspector properly package and seal the sample? Of course, if MSHA decides to issue a citation, this won't be the end of your questions and investigation; it will be just the beginning. These are just some of the relevant questions to ask. Challenging a health citation can involve complex litigation and require expert legal help.

But, at the foundation of any such challenge, there is no substitute to actually knowing what took place during the inspection and sampling. Knowing what to look for and taking note of any problems during sampling can help ensure that MSHA's sampling accurately shows your compliance with the regulations, and if not, it will often provide some of your best information as you prepare to defend against a citation.