Fed report warns of MSHA POV issues

A REPORT released late last week from the US inspector general regarding the US Mine Safety and Health Administration’s pattern of violations process revealed concerns that require “immediate corrective action”.

Donna Schmidt
Fed report warns of MSHA POV issues

According to a two-page memorandum document from assistant inspector general for audit Elliot Lewis to US Mine Safety and Health Administration assistant secretary for mine safety and health Joseph Main, federal industry regulators inappropriately removed 10 coal mines from its safety violation pattern list.

The report was requested shortly after the Upper Big Branch explosion on April 5 that killed 29 workers. It does not name the 10 mines removed from scrutiny.

However, it is known that UBB was not among the 10. An MSHA spokesperson confirmed shortly after the blast that it had been missed late last year due to a computer error.

"In March 2009 when the Coal Mine Safety and Health administrator notified his district managers of mines meeting the POV screening criteria (including scores for each mine) he directed them to 'select no more than one mine on the initial screening list per field office and a maximum of three mines per district'," the report stated.

"We were told this guidance was necessary to address resource limitations. However, this instruction set a limit that was inappropriate for this enforcement program."

The report also noted that the initial screening procedure for the Pattern of Violations effort included the ability of district administrators to remove mines from scrutiny with written justification from a district manager.

Between 2007 and 2009, the inspector general said it has counted five POV analyses that identified 89 operations for potential pattern of violation status.

“For a variety of reasons (not yet validated through audit procedures), MSHA officials removed 21 of these mines from the initial screening lists," the report said.

"Mines that were removed did not receive letters notifying them of potential POV status nor did MSHA monitor these mines for improved rates of significant and substantial violations."

While some were justified in their removal – such as a change of status to non-producing – at least 10 mines were removed on the instruction of the Coal mine Safety and Health administrator, subjecting miners to increased safety risks.

US Representative George Miller, who serves as chairman of the House Education and Labor committee and ordered the Department of Labor to conduct the POV review, said the inspector general’s alert raised “very serious concerns” for miner health and safety.

“MSHA obstructed a key safety enforcement tool that could have endangered the lives of mine workers," he said.

"We will continue our rigorous oversight of mine safety, including introduction of significant reforms to our nation's health and safety laws in the coming days."

Both Department of Labor secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA head Main responded to the report on Friday, reiterating that MSHA provided full support and cooperation to the inspector general’s office during the process, and acknowledged that the system is “fundamentally flawed and needs to be fixed”

Both also pledged to revise the administrative procedures surrounding the effort for the determinations to be made for 2010’s POV scrutiny while working on long-term legislative and regulatory reforms.

“The Department of Labor announced in April that it would work on new regulations that govern the POV system,” the federal agency said.

“Today, the department further announced it will change its administrative policies regarding POV to the extent permitted under the law.

“These new policies will govern the 2010 POV determinations expected in October and assure that all mines are dealt with according to these policies.”

Solis said the inspector general’s findings reaffirmed what the department already knew – the system was broken.

“It’s clear that we need to scrap the current system and put a new system in place that is focused on protecting miners’ safety and health,” she said.

“I’m working with my former colleagues in Congress to develop a legislative response, and at the same time I’ve asked MSHA to begin work on both regulatory and administrative fixes.

“The bottom line is that the system we use this year will be different than the system we used in the past, and we’ll continue to work to get this system right in order to protect the safety and health of America’s miners.”

Main said MSHA welcomed Lewis’ continued partnership in identifying the issues that needed to be fixed, while it remained dedicated to that same goal.


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