Rock Products Logo

Can MSHA Sustain its Pace?

Recent Trends Seem to Presage Potential Problems for the Agency up the Road.

By Mark Savit

During a couple of recent joint MSHA/Industry conferences I just attended, a number of MSHA officials seemed surprised that operators remain troubled by the level of MSHA enforcement they were facing. Time and again, they referred to the fact that MSHA issued fewer citations in 2010 than they did in 2009 and wondered out loud what the operators were upset about. Of course, they did not mention that penalties in 2010 were significantly higher than the prior year and that both S&S percentages and elevated enforcement rates have risen measurably as well.

What has my attention, however are two contrasting trends. First that MSHA appears to be taking an ever-expanding view of its regulations, its power and its reach, while, at the same time, we are seeing more and more decisions questioning aggressive MSHA enforcement.

For instance, despite a series of decisions by administrative law judges that defects in equipment found during required pre-operational inspections should not be the subject of citations, MSHA continues to issue citations in those situations and stridently defends its enforcement strategy. This seems especially odd, since, when you boil it down, it essentially penalizes operators for:

  1. Complying with the inspection requirements.
  2. Doing the inspections thoroughly enough to find various defects.

Without belaboring the point, I have yet to be convinced that such actions really advance the cause of safety. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

MSHA has now begun demanding more and more access and more and more documents and the Review Commission has recently upheld MSHA’s actions in that regard at least with respect to requests for medical records in connection with what they call Part 50 audits (accident reporting audits for those who don’t speak fluent regulation). In addition, MSHA has started to assess larger and larger penalties that are not just limited to those companies that can afford them.

Potential Problems
But these trends seem to presage potential problems. The more MSHA pushes, the more likely it is that at least one Federal Judge (or group of them) will take the view that MSHA has simply gone to far. A good example of this is the recent decision by the D.C. Circuit decision reversing the Commission’s ruling that modifications of Section 103(k) orders are subject to motions for temporary relief. Of particular interest was the Court’s observation that the language that the Commission had found unclear was, to those judges at least, “a model of clarity.”

At the rate the agency is going, it seems to me that it is becoming more and more likely that various courts will begin to take a more objective, and restrictive, view of the limits of MSHA’s powers.

But let’s back up for a minute. As a lawyer, I am more than happy to try and resolve all of these issues through litigation. After all, that’s what pays the bills. But continued and more intensive litigation has two problems. First, it’s expensive and second, it is inherently risky. After all, litigation ultimately means that we are all leaving the decision up to a judge who might not have a clue about the practical implications his or her decision might have on the industry.

Alternative Forums
In the alternative, there could be forums in which we all can start to discuss ways to move together toward the common goal of improving safety and health in our industry. The gatherings co-sponsored by MSHA and industry in the Western, Rocky Mountain, Southwestern and Southeastern Metal/Nonmetal districts and Coal District 11 are a great start. Just because we are fighting in the courts doesn’t mean we can’t exchange ideas about how the agency and the industry can advance their common cause in a less adversarial way. We can only hope that the programs will continue and hopefully spread beyond the relatively limited areas they are in now.

Another such forum would be the newly established safety committee formed by the Society of Mining Engineers. The committee is in its first year of existence, but it is at least worth exploring how it can work as an “honest broker” to facilitate the exchange of ideas between the agency and the industry.

That committee strikes me as the best forum in which to exchange technical information which could go far in guiding us all toward better approaches to difficult issues like ventilation, roof and ground control and risk assessment methodologies.

But making these nascent efforts into meaningful places to have frank discussions means that they have to be considered “safe harbors” to bring up difficult technical issues without risking enforcement consequences, lest lawyers like me do our best to stifle the exchange in an effort to protect our clients. In addition, each side should consider devoting enough resources to the efforts to make them meaningful opportunities for technology transfer and information exchange, rather than pleasant, albeit useful, social gatherings.

Considering the amount of time, money and effort we are currently spending on litigation, this seems like an easy choice. But it is going to take all of the parties’ commitments before it can go forward.

Mark Savit, a partner at Patton Boggs, counsels clients on natural resources law and regulatory matters, with an emphasis on mine safety and health law, protected species law, public lands law, oil and gas law, occupational safety law, and related litigation and legislative services. He began his career at the Department of the Interior and headed the special investigation unit of the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration. 303-894-6117, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..