The move is the first phase of reform for the agency’s current enforcement program for patterns of violations.
Federal officials said earlier this year the agency would draft new regulations, in response to calls by both the US Congress and the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General to fix serious flaws in the current system.
In addition to the placement of new screening criteria, MSHA will also have a new review process for determining a mine’s potential pattern of violations for its 2010 review of mine safety records.
“Since the passage of the Mine Act more than 30 years ago, not one mining operation has ever been placed on a pattern of violations,” assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health Joseph Main said.
“This new screening process improves upon the old one, which cast too broad a net and did not distinguish mines with the highest levels of elevated enforcement. This new system will let MSHA focus its attention on those mines that are putting miners at greatest risk.”
He noted that POV program changes cannot fix shortcomings that will require legislation or adjustments to existing regulations.
“This is a stop-gap measure until reform can occur,” Main said.
“We are aggressively pursuing both regulatory and legislative reforms, but in the meantime this new policy improves our ability to identify problem mines. Our goal with each of these reform efforts is to identify mines with a pattern of dangerous conditions and encourage them to improve their safety records; if a mine fails to do so, it will be placed into POV status.”
Under section 104(e) of the 1977 Mine Safety and Health Act, operators with a pattern of significant and substantial (S&S) violations are subject to closure orders related to the affected areas of the mine.
A closure order will remain in place until the mine receives a clean inspection.
Under the current program, MSHA has a screening process to determine potential patterns of violation, with operations falling under the guidelines given a period of time to reduce violations before a 104(e) closure order is issued.
Historically under the Mine Act, POV provisions are intended for use “at mines with a record of repeated [significant and substantial] violations and where the other enforcement provisions of the statute have not been effective in bringing the mine into compliance with federal health and safety standards”
The final rule’s preamble states that “MSHA expects to reserve the use of the 104(e) sanctions for mines where the operator has not responded to an escalating series of enforcement actions by the agency”
“MSHA’s changes to the screening process are designed to meet these statutory and regulatory objectives,” Main said.
“They will focus on mines that exhibit chronic failures to maintain safe working conditions, have repeated significant and substantial violations, and have not responded to other enforcement tools.”
The new process, he added, has been designed to identify operations subject to closure orders, including those for failing to correct violations after MSHA cites them; unwarrantable failures to comply with health or safety standards; failure to provide miners with required training and imminent dangers in the mine.
The new outlines will be better for spotting mines where the tools have been used, but where they have not been sufficient to improve the operation’s compliance.
“The criteria also will consider whether a mine has high numbers of significant and substantial or S&S, violations involving elevated negligence, as well as a mine’s injury severity rate, targeting operations with an above-average injury severity measure,” Main said.
“All of these factors are either new to the screening criteria or given greater emphasis than before.”
Federal officials will use the most recent 12 months of health and safety data to screen mines, with that screening data addressing two major categories.
“In the first category, a mine must exhibit high numbers of S&S violations (at least 50); have S&S violations either issued at an elevated rate (eight per 100 inspection hours) or at elevated levels (25% or more) of negligence; have a high rate of elevated enforcement actions (0.5 per 100 inspection hours) and have an elevated record of severe injuries (above the industry rate),” Main said.
“The second category targets mines that do not meet the above criteria but still have high numbers of S&S violations and elevated enforcement actions – at least 100 S&S citations/orders and at least 40 elevated citations/orders.”
Current regulations will be enforced in that impacted mines will either have repeated S&S violations of the same standard – at least five under federal guidelines – or at least two repeated S&S violations stemming from an unwarrantable failure to comply.
For details on MSHA’s 2010 POV screening criteria visit www.msha.gov.au.