As per the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, MSHA is required to inspect underground coal mines in their entirety at least four times per year to safeguard miners. However, a lack of resources during a period of increasing mining activity, as well as agency officials not placing “adequate resources on ensuring the inspections completed,” contributed to the agency’s failure to complete the required inspections.
In addition, the 65-page report found that the agency was not able to assure that “critical inspection activities” were preformed last year. After auditors conducted a review of 21 inspections of active mines, they found that the agency failed to document them 15 percent of time because “management did not require inspectors to document critical inspection activities performed.”
A string of mining disasters, including the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster on Aug. 6, where six miners and three rescuers were killed, as well as the deaths of 14 miners at the Sago and Aracoma mines in West Virginia in the beginning of 2006, has prompted government leaders to look at MSHA with a critical lens.
The auditors mentioned in the report that because of the recent Crandall Canyon mine tragedy, they decided to include it in the audit. The report concluded that despite having completed all seven required inspections in 2006 and 2007, auditors found that one inspection was incomplete, one lacked required documentation and the other contained misdated documents for critical inspection activities, which the report said “MSHA could not explain.”
Stickler: 70 Percent of Incomplete Inspections Were at Abandoned Mines
MSHA Administrator Richard Stickler wrote a letter to Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell in response to the report, disagreeing with the accuracy and presentation of some of the audit results and questioned the audit methodology for assessing the thoroughness of inspections.
“Your final report fails to acknowledge that the majority (70 percent) of incomplete mandatory inspections determined during your audit period were at mines that were either non-producing, inactive, intermittent, or abandoned during the inspection period,” Stickler wrote. “For inspections not completed at inactive or abandoned mines, miners were not placed at risk to hazardous conditions,” he stressed.
The report made seven recommendations MSHA should comply with and MSHA has agreed to implement five of them. The recommendations include ensuring:
- Inspection resources are commensurate with the mining activity in the coal districts.
- Inspection completions are effectively monitored.
- Policies and procedures are developed for calculating the regular safety and health inspection completion rate and ensuring the inspection data used is correct.
- Procedures for documenting all critical inspection activities are included in MSHA’s General Inspection Handbook.
- All critical inspection activities are documented as performed or not applicable at the mines being inspected.
- Field Office supervisors certify inspections are thorough and complete.
- Inspection activity documentation and supervisory oversight are reviewed as part of MSHA’s accountability program.