The new administrator of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) asserts that the agency has embraced a fresh commitment to its mission of protecting America’s miners—but that has not gone without doubt in some quarters.
Retired mining company chief executive David Zatezalo took control of the agency last November when he was confirmed by the Senate for the position of Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. That happened after he had been opposed by critics who objected to the fact that when Zatezalo headed Rhino Resources, the coal mining company was hit with two serious Pattern of Violations (POV) citations by the agency he now heads.
More recently, concerns were raised over what appeared to be a conflict of interest on Zatezalo’s part in participating in settlement negotiations regarding a lawsuit brought by several mining industry associations seeking to overturn an MSHA regulation designed to streamline enforcement measures taken against POV offenders—the very charges that had been brought against Rhino when Zatezalo headed it.
Critics pointed out that he also had played a leadership role in two of the state associations that brought the suit. However, he noted that he had left those positions before the suit was brought and the Department of Labor determined that no conflict existed on Zatezalo’s part. A possible settlement of the five-year-old lawsuit is expected to be announced soon.
His tenure had no sooner begun when he had to grapple with a report about worsening mine safety in 2017. A total of 15 coal miners died on the job during 2017 compared with eight in 2016. There also were 13 fatalities recorded last year in non-coal mining operations that produce gravel, sand, limestone and mineable metals. The non-coal segment also had 17 such deaths in 2015 and 30 in 2014.
Eight of coal mining deaths last year involved hauling vehicles and two others involved other kinds of machinery, but none were attributed to explosions of gas or dust which historically have produced the greatest number of fatalities.
At a recent industry event, Zatezalo said that MSHA will place a special emphasis on powered haulage safety this year. He revealed that MSHA is planning a rulemaking to require operators at surface mines to use proximity detection technologies that are now being used on continuous miner machines in underground coal mines, as well as seat belt interlock devices. This technology would reduce these haulage injuries and fatalities without imposing a heavy cost burden on mine operators, he says.
According to a recent MSHA report, the agency issued 104,412 enforcement actions to mine operators in 2017, an increase of approximately 11,793 or 11.3% from 2016. Of these, 58,083 (or 55.63%) were issued to metal/nonmetal operators while 46,329 (or 44.37%) were issued to coal operators.
Collecting What’s Due
A sore point for agency critics who have accused the agency of favoring mine operators’ interests is MSHA’s failure to collect the fines and penalties it assesses. Zatezalo admits that a total of $67 million of unpaid MSHA fines have accrued over the years, but declares the agency will redouble its efforts to collect what is due.
“MSHA will pursue them with every means under the law,” Zatezalo said in a March 6 op-ed article in the Wheeling News Register. “Just as drivers who don’t pay their speeding tickets may see their driving privileges suspended, mine operators that do not pay their safety and health fines can be forced to cease production until fines are resolved. At all times, miners will be paid.”
Mine owners can be issued citations for having failed to pay the MSHA fines that they owe, and in the most serious of cases, operations at their mines can be shut down until payment is arranged. Zatezalo emphasized that even in the case of a production shutdown, miners will continue to be paid.
This program apparently has never been implemented to its fullest extent since it was created, he said. MSHA has issued 16 citations since 2007 for failure to pay MSHA fines, and since then five orders have been issued requiring mines to shut down production.
“Uncollected fines combined with continued violations show disregard for the law and our nation’s miners,” Zatezalo asserted. “The status quo is unacceptable and must change.”
Bringing Tech to Inspections
MSHA announced on March 19 that it will implement a new Mobile Inspection Application System (Mobile IAS) to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of mine inspectors by arming them with advanced high technology.
The existing system has been in place for more than 18 years. According to MSHA it was extremely outdated and required mine inspectors to carry with them bulky laptops, cameras, reference material and documentation from previous inspections.
The Mobile IAS is built around a new Windows-based, lightweight, semi-rugged tablet with a camera, video, voice recording, touchscreen, digital pen Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capability to facilitate data capture, according to MSHA.
The new system should streamline the inspection process through an application built on Microsoft’s Universal Windows platform with photo capture that also includes fillable, pre-populated forms. In addition, the agency claims the new system will boast a service-oriented architecture for efficient data transfer among devices and the MSHA Standardized Information System.
The agency says that nearly 1,500 federal mine inspectors and staff are seen as benefitting from the new system and technology.
“Enabling mine inspectors to work more efficiently means more time to focus on the health and safety of America’s miners,” says Zatezalo. “MSHA’s Mobile IAS is expected to improve the quality of information by eliminating redundancy and provide more timely information for inspectors.”
Warning on Blast Safety
Following its investigation of a fly rock incident following an accidental explosives blast that happened last December, MSHA has issued recommendations for operators to improve safety when conducting blasting operations.
During the incident under question, three employees were injured when they were positioned 130 feet away from the blast area when the explosives detonated prematurely, without any warning. The miners were struck with debris, resulting in injuries of varying severity.
As a result, MSHA issued several best practice recommendations for when operators prepare and carry out a blast in surface operations:
• Consider mine specific conditions and rock strata when designing blasts to prevent fly rock.
• Closely follow mine policies and procedures through all phases of the blasting operation.
• Schedule blasting between shifts or on off-shifts.
• Utilize suitable blast shelters for all persons at the mine site during blasting.
• Use restricted areas for non-enclosed blasting operations.
• Keep coworkers away from the blaster.
• Always consider past fly rock when determining your blast area.
• Your blast area should as a minimum be one-and-a-half times the furthest distance that any previous fly rock has traveled.
One More Thing…
MSHA announced on March 23 that it is reopening the public comment period regarding the agency’s Request for Information (RFI) on exposure of underground miners to diesel exhaust fumes. The renewed comment period will close on March 26, 2019.
In June 2016, MSHA published an RFI seeking information and data regarding the effectiveness of the agency’s existing standards and policy guidance on controlling miners’ exposure to diesel exhaust in order to preserve miners’ health.
The initial RFI comment period closed on Nov. 30, 2016. As a result of collaboration at a partnership meeting in December 2016, the comment period was extended until Jan. 9, 2018.
Also, in response to requests made by stakeholders during the comment period, MSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) convened a Diesel Exhaust Health Effects Partnership with the mining industry, diesel engine manufacturers, academia and representatives of organized labor to gather information concerning the complex questions contained in the RFI.
Since then, MSHA has received additional stakeholder requests to provide more time for all of these stakeholders to share inputs and data.