MSHA head outlines future coal mine safety plans

Joseph Main, the head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, told a West Virginia coal industry group that more needs to be done in terms of coal mine safety in the U.S.

In a Feb. 2 speech at the West Virginia Coal Association’s 39th Annual Mining Symposium in Charleston, Main highlighted a number of strategic initiatives that have been implemented which the agency believes have markedly improved miner safety and health, including monthly impact inspections, the pattern of violations program, and education and outreach within the industry.

“I believe the actions we have taken at MSHA, along with those of the mining industry, are making a difference and making mines safer for the nation’s miners,” said Main. “Enhanced enforcement and regulatory and administrative changes, along with increased compliance and responsibility from the industry, have resulted in gains for the cause of miner safety. But, I believe more can be done to ensure that the nation’s miners can go to work, put in their shifts, and return home safe and healthy each day.”

This was a particularly prime audience for Main, since the symposium attracts not only top-level coal company executives, but also mine managers and supervisors that are literally dressed for the mine site and often show up at the symposium for part of the day and are at the mine for the rest of it.

MSHA’s special impact inspection program began in force in April 2010 following the explosion at the Upper Big Branch deep mine, located not far from Charleston. The blast killed 29 miners, the most fatalities in a single mine accident in the U.S. in many years. Since then, the agency has conducted 387 impact inspections and issued 7,655 citations, orders and safeguards.

“Overall compliance is improving at mines receiving impact inspections,” said Main. “Violations per inspection hour are down 11 percent after mines received an initial impact inspection. Significant and substantial violation rates are down 18 percent; 104(d) orders are down 38 percent. The total self-reported lost-time injury rate at these mines is down 18 percent.”

Changes to the pattern of violations (POV) process also are improving safety, Main said. POVs, up until recently a rarely-used enforcement program, are issued if the agency finds the company has a longstanding pattern of consistent mine safety violations.

“Since November 2010, 28 potential pattern of violations [PPOV] notices have been issued at 26 mines,” said Main. “Two POV notices were issued, the first time any mine was successfully placed on POV and issued closure orders in the Mine Act’s 33-year history. Since completing the PPOV process, the total violation rate among 14 mines that received PPOV notices in 2010 is down 21 percent, the total [significant and substantial] violation rate is down 38 percent, and the rate of 104(d) withdrawal orders is down 60 percent. The lost-time injury rate at these mines has dropped 39 percent.”

In 2011, MSHA inspected about 14,000 mines and issued 157,894 citations and orders, down from 171,373 in 2010. Some 49% of those violations were cited at underground coal mines, a sector representing only 5% of the total mines inspected. It’s also a sector that continues to grow. The number of underground coal mines increased by nearly 6%, and the number of mining units increased by nearly 9%. “Underground coal mines unquestionably have the most challenging compliance issues and received much of the agency’s attention,” said Main.

There is a constant rotation of new deep coal mines coming into production, and old ones running out of coal reserves, in Southern, Central and Northern Appalachia. This region, heavily mined for over a hundred years, has relatively small pockets of reserves left to work, so most deep mines there are relatively short-lived. It isn’t clear if the rise in the number of deep mines has led to more production, or whether this is just because each succeeding mine is that much smaller. Other areas with deep mines, like the Illinois Basin and the Utah/Colorado coalfields, tend to have a stable group of larger deep mines that run for many years.

Thirty-seven miners died in work-related accidents last year, the second lowest since statistics have been recorded. Main noted that the first year the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 was in effect, 273 miners died. “We’ve seen those numbers continue to fall since then, and the distance to zero is much shorter now than it was in 1977,” he said.

Main outlined other important initiatives implemented under his watch that have resulted in positive reform:

  • Rules to Live By: This multi-phase initiative, in phase one, focused on the most common mining deaths and standards cited most often in mining death investigations. Phase two focused on preventing catastrophic accidents, and phase three, launched the week of Jan. 30, will highlight 14 safety standards chosen because violations related to each have been cited as contributing to at least five mining accidents and at least five deaths during a 10-year period.
  • Pre-assessment conferencing process: Implemented in districts where resources permit, the pre-assessment conferencing process allows disputes to be resolved before they are contested and added to the backlog of contested cases.
  • Backlog: Additional resources provided by Congress have enabled MSHA to lessen the total backlog of contested cases before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission from almost 89,000 citations in January 2011 to fewer than 67,000 in December 2011.
  • Regulatory actions: MSHA’s regulatory reforms have focused on ending black lung disease, using proximity detection devices to prevent deaths and crushing injuries from continuous mining machines used in deep mines, revising POV rules and increasing rock dust use to suppress explosions in deep mines.
  • Consistency in mine inspections: MSHA improved oversight of the inspection program and consistency in the enforcement of the Mine Act with a new training program for all field office supervisors. To date, all supervisors have received the training and will receive re-training every two years. MSHA also is overhauling mine inspection handbooks, updating inspection procedures and policies, and addressing issues identified during agency audits and internal reviews.

Main affirmed that one of the keys to improved mine safety and health is for mine operators to take more responsibility. He noted that, while there are mine operators who implement safety and health programs and work to comply with safety and health rules, there are others who ignore the regulations and put workers at risk. “Bringing those who do not comply up to the standards of those who do — that should be a goal of all in the mining industry,” he said.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.