For the report, GAO – the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress – says it “surveyed a representative sample of active underground coal mines, analyzed agency data, conducted site visits and talked with agency officials and other experts.” The goals, according to GAO, were to examine:
- The challenges that underground coal mines face in preparing for emergencies.
- The efficacy of MSHA's oversight of mine operator training.
- How well MSHA and NIOSH coordinate to enhance the development and approval of mine safety technology.
- How civil penalties are assessed.
GAO determined that while coal mine operators recognize the importance of simulating emergencies as part of training, many operators struggle to provide miners with “realistic training,” as many lack the funds to provide emergency training and the access to training facilities to simulate emergency situations.
The report estimates that about half of the coal mines that GAO analyzed had not conducted drills in environments that simulate actual emergency situations, which is a requirement stipulated in the Mine Improvement and Emergency Response (MINER) Act.
MSHA Has No Continuing Ed. Requirements for Instructors
Although MSHA has instituted new training requirements – such as conducting mine emergency drills and installing directional lifelines for miners – the GAO analysis found that about half of the mines weren't providing mine operators with the training information and tools necessary to facilitate emergency training.
“MSHA has general guidelines for items to be considered when approving new instructors, but its standards are inconsistent, and it has no continuing education requirements for instructors,” the report says. “MSHA also does not have current information on its instructors and does not ensure that they keep their knowledge and skills up to date.”
In addition, the report notes that the agency doesn't asses how well miners are learning the skills they are being taught by their instructors.
MSHA Lenient in Reducing Fines
GAO found that from 1996 to 2006, coal companies that were fined by MSHA for safety violations appealed and, as a result, had their fines reduced by an average of 49 percent – regardless of the seriousness of the violation and the degree of operator’s negligence.
Ever since the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia in early 2006, lawmakers have sharply criticized MSHA's fine structure, and the agency has started assessing steeper penalties for safety violations.
The report also criticizes the relationship between MSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), asserting that the two agencies do not “have a current memorandum of understanding to guide their coordination efforts or formally involve each other in strategic planning efforts.”
In its recommendations, GAO suggests that Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao “direct MSHA to publicize information and available tools for training mine workers” under such emergency conditions. In addition, the report recommends that MSHA strengthen its monitoring of training.
The report advises MSHA and NIOSH to work closer together so the two agencies can collaborate more effectively to come up with strategies that ensure the safety and health of coal miners.