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Outside Probe of Serious Accidents Needed

By James Sharpe

MSHA’s vital mission is to ensure miners have safe and healthy workplaces through enforcement of the Mine Act and associated regulations. Without a strong federal enforcement presence in the mines, these work sites would be more hazardous than they are now. Kudos to MSHA for the essential role it plays.

It could do its job better, though. A spate of five underground coal mine tragedies since 2006 make my point. Throw in the Jim Walter disaster in 2001 (13 dead) and the Quecreek accident in 2002 (9 successfully rescued) and you have seven in this century, or on average, one about every 22 months. The incidents suggest an agency painfully slow to learn from its mistakes, and why this is so deserves an investigation all its own.

But MSHA won’t hear of any outside probe that examines the way it conducts its taxpayer-funded business. The agency would argue it has repeatedly examined its own performance, issued critical internal review reports of its findings and acted on the recommendations to come from them. But they are making my point: how many probes must they do before they get it right?

A team from NIOSH did examine MSHA’s internal review report after the Upper Big Branch (UBB) explosion. But it wasn’t because MSHA welcomed it – the probe came on an order from the Secretary of Labor. Nor has MSHA accepted NIOSH’s essential conclusion that the agency could have done more to prevent the deadly accident. We can do better, MSHA said after UBB, but its leadership stopped well short of accepting even a scintilla of blame for the worst coal mine accident in nearly 40 years.

The conflict of interest inherent in self-examination is obvious. At MSHA, investigators are thrust into a position of evaluating their co-workers, who in some cases are close friends, superiors, even relatives. Who within the agency can say with a straight face that such inter-connectedness produces forthrightness when things of real value are potentially at stake, such as promotions, pay raises and personal relationships?

A divided Congress agrees on few things these days, but here’s one even MSHA’s slavish patrons in the legislative body are united on: independent investigations are to be conducted of accidents that involve three or more mine fatalities. Or “any accident that is of such severity or scale for potential or actual harm that, in the opinion of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the accident merits an independent investigation” [my emphasis]. The language is straight out of the latest comprehensive mine reform bill introduced by Democratic senator Jay Rockefeller in the Senate in July.

MSHA is run by Joe Main, a former union career safety official. Even his old employer, the United Mine Workers of America, says rather fatalistically that the Mine Act should be amended to require an independent probe into what the union calls “future multi-fatal incidents.”

The most damning signal suggested by the agency’s opposition to peering eyes is that it has something to hide. I wouldn’t go that far. Rather, I think MSHA just wants to control the message. If everyone else perceives that independent investigations are in the miner’s best interest, doesn’t that thrust the champion of miners’ interests ‒ MSHA ‒ into a rather untenable position?

The language in Rockefeller’s bill says nothing about requiring MSHA to act on recommendations from an independent panel’s investigation or for continuing oversight to assure such actions are carried out. Judging by MSHA’s cold-shouldered reaction to the NIOSH review team, the senator’s proposal needs to be amended. MSHA would scream and holler about that too, but its protestations should be ignored.

James Sharpe holds a master’s degree in environmental health sciences and is certified in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene, health and safety. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..