Labor Inspector General: MSHA Knowingly Overlooked Mines with Serious Safety Records

June 24, 2010
On June 23, the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General reported that the agency found serious problems with how MSHA identifies the nation’s most dangerous mines for tighter scrutiny.

“The Office of Inspector General reaffirms what we already knew: The Pattern of Violation process is badly broken,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. “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.”

Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., asked the Inspector General in April to investigate MSHA’s procedures after MSHA disclosed that a computer error excluded the Upper Big Branch Mine from being notified that the mine may be under a so-called pattern of violations (POV) sanctions. Mines identified as having a pattern of violations are considered serial violators of health and safety protections.

“The Inspector General’s alert raises very serious concerns that go to the heart of health and safety of mine workers. Prior to Assistant Secretary Main’s confirmation, MSHA obstructed a key safety enforcement tool that could have endangered the lives of mine workers,” said Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor. “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. This memorandum also raises questions about whether MSHA districts have sufficient resources to enforce the law.”

According to the key findings, the Inspector General is “very concerned about mines removed for reasons other than appropriate consideration of the health and safety conditions at those mines. MSHA is not subjecting these mines to the enhanced oversight that accompanies potential POV status, yet it does not have evidence that they had reduced their rate of significant and substantial violations. As a result, miners may be subjected to increased safety risks.”

Once a mine is notified that they may be under a pattern of violation, the mine must take immediate actions to come up with a plan that reduces future violations – approved by federal mine safety officials – or face tougher sanctions.

Fixing the Problems

Solis indicated that she is working with Congress to develop a legislative response and has asked MSHA to work on regulatory and administrative solutions.

“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,” Solis said.

“The more one looks at the Pattern of Violation system we inherited, the more problems one finds,” added MSHA Administrator Joseph A. Main. “That’s why, in April, we announced that we'd be rewriting the Pattern of Violation rules this year. We're also conducting a review of the internal policies that govern Pattern of Violations so we can begin to change the way we deal with persistently problematic mines this year. We welcome the inspector general's continued partnership in identifying problems we need to fix, and we remain committed to doing whatever it takes to fix this badly broken system.”

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