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House Hearing Scrutinizes MSHA Regulatory and Enforcement Actions

Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Administrator Joseph Main testified at a March 3 House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections hearing that examined recent regulatory and policy changes aimed at improving mine safety.

During the hearing, committee members expressed concerns about a March 25, 2010 report released by MSHA’s accountability office detailing several instances in which MSHA officials failed to enforce existing rules and regulations. House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., called the report’s findings, which were not shared with the committee, “damning.”

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., who later confirmed that corrective actions were made immediately following the 2010 report, expressed a hope to find “common ground to advance legislation – legislation our miners deserve.”

MSHA Administrator Main, the hearing’s sole witness, reported on the agency’s actions since the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mining disaster and outlined why additional legislation is needed to protect America’s miners. He stressed it while may take several months before MSHA can issue a report on the Upper Big Branch explosion, “we do know that explosions in mines are preventable and that workplace culture, which puts health and safety first, will save lives and prevent tragedies.”

According to Main, in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, MSHA used every tool at its disposal to bolster mining safety, including ramped-up enforcement, targeted upgrades in regulations and education and outreach. But the agency needs help that only Congress can provide through legislation to better protect the nation’s minders, he said.

Among the areas of need Main highlighted include fixing the broken pattern of violations system to allow MSHA to better address chronic violators; injunctive relief to ensure immediate action can be taken, when necessary, to protect miner safety and health; stronger criminal provisions in the Mine Act so no mine operator risks the lives of workers to cut corners for profit; and whistleblower protection to ensure miners can exercise their rights without fear of retaliation.

Main stressed that such legislation would give MSHA “the enforcement tools it needs to ensure that all mine operators live up to their legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace for all miners.”

In response to Main’s assertion that MSHA needs stronger tools to protect miners, Kline said, “… the failure is not in having the right tools in the toolbox, but the people using the tools in the toolbox.”

“Despite the progress that has been made, more must be done to protect these workers,” said Subcommittee Chairman Tim Walberg, R-Mich. “Last April’s tragedy at Upper Big Branch Mine forever changed the lives of the families and community of Montcoal, W.Va. This horrific event will forever serve as a stark reminder of the need to remain vigilant in providing strong and effective safety protections for America’s miners.”

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