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MSHA Chief: Mine Safety Moving in Right Direction

Despite a number of challenges confronting the mining industry over the past two and a half years, including the worst coal mine disaster in four decades, the actions being taken by the U.S. Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration and many in the industry are making a positive difference and moving mine safety and health in the right direction. That was the central theme of Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph A. Main's remarks delivered at “Measuring Progress Toward a Safety Culture of Prevention in Mining,” a one-day seminar sponsored by Pennsylvania State University's Miner Training Program near Pittsburgh.

“Following the April 2010 explosion of the Upper Big Branch Mine, one of my most significant challenges was keeping MSHA focused on our overall mission and agenda to advance mine safety,” said Main. “That tragedy clearly identified that more needed to be done to provide miners with a voice in the workplace, and that MSHA needed to more aggressively use its tools under the Mine Act to enforce the law. We began taking actions immediately after the disaster, and we are still continuing to implement a number of initiatives to make mines safer.”

Three months ago, the agency released the results of its internal review into actions leading up to and immediately following the UBB explosion, including recommendations for improving MSHA's effectiveness. “We are changing how we do business at MSHA,” said Main. To that end, the agency has undertaken a comprehensive review of its policy directive system, as well as a complete overhaul of its coal mine inspectors' handbook to make it clear and concise. MSHA also is increasing staff training and addressing shortcomings repeatedly identified in several past agency internal reviews.

The enhanced enforcement strategies MSHA is implementing are working, according to Main. During the more than two-year-old impact inspection program, which targets mines with chronic compliance issues, MSHA has conducted 443 inspections, resulting in 7,948 citations, 785 orders and 29 safeguards.

“Overall compliance is improving at these mines,” he said. Violations per inspection hour are down 13 percent after mines received an initial impact inspection. The significant and substantial, or S&S, violation rate is down 21 percent and 104(d) withdrawal orders are down 43 percent. The total lost-time injury rate at these mines is down 13 percent. Main added, “Unfortunately, there are some mine operators that still haven't gotten the message.”

Main noted also that the agency's pattern of violations initiative is netting positive results. In a recent review of enforcement data on the 14 mines that received initial potential POV notices in 2010, the total violation rate at these mines is down 25 percent, the total S&S violation rate is down 44 percent and the rate of 104(d) withdrawal orders is down 66 percent. The lost-time injury rate at these mines has dropped 43 percent.

Compliance data also show that improvements are occurring in the mining industry as a whole. In 2011, MSHA inspected about 14,170 mines and issued 157,678 citations and orders. This is down from 2010, when MSHA issued 171,018 citations and orders. In 2011, MSHA issued 49,582 S&S and 2,920 unwarrantable failure citations and orders, down from 56,502 S&S and 3,370 unwarrantable issued in 2010, a decrease of about 9 percent.