Federal Safety Regulator to Crack Down on Miners Working Alone

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By Stephen Lee

Federal safety regulators will begin cracking down on mine operators who send their employees to work alone, starting May 1.

Under the new initiative, inspectors and training specialists with the Mine Safety and Health Administration will focus their inspections and site visits on miners working alone, said Patricia Silvey, MSHA’s deputy assistant secretary, during a conference call.

Agency personnel will share best practices with both mine operators and workers during their visits, said Kevin Stricklin, acting administrator of MSHA’s metal and nonmetal group.

The action comes in response to a recent string of deaths among solo workers: five of the eight miners who have died in 2017 were working alone at the time. Apart from that fact, however, no other common factor seems to link the five deaths, and Silvey said she had no theories about what’s behind the trend.

“If we could tell you today why is that, that would be the $64,000 question,” she said.

No Regulatory Changes

Under federal law, miners can’t be assigned, allowed or required to work alone in hazardous places unless they can communicate with others or can be heard or seen.

Silvey said MSHA has no plans to update the agency’s working alone standard.

Brad Hammock, an industry-side attorney with Jackson Lewis P.C. in Washington, said he found it “interesting"—though not necessarily inappropriate—for MSHA to undertake the new initiative before a Secretary of Labor is confirmed. Alexander Acosta, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the post, is expected to go to vote in the Senate later this week.

“It depends on how this plays out, in terms of what actually happens when they’re conducting these inspections,” Hammock told Bloomberg BNA. “They clearly want to focus on guidance and information sharing, which is appropriate. And it may be that, as this develops, there’s an inspection component that makes sense.”

Nick Scala, an industry attorney with Conn Maciel Carey LLP in Washington, said some mines are so large that managing the whereabouts of workers can be difficult.

“There are some basic logistical and geographical challenges, given the size of the operation,” Scala told Bloomberg BNA. “That differs so much depending on whether you’re a large underground mine or a surface quarry.”

Because the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act imposes strict liability, employers can be liable for violations of the working alone standard even if they directly and repeatedly tell miners not to work alone, according to Scala.

Action Does Not Conflict With Inspection Rule

Silvey also said there’s no conflict between MSHA’s new emphasis on working alone and its pending hardrock mine safety inspection rule (RIN:1219-AB87), which one participant on the call suggested could require operators to send workers out alone.

Silvey said the pending rule only requires mine operators to conduct inspections before workers start their shifts; it says nothing about using lone workers to perform those inspections.

MSHA is currently accepting comments in response to its proposal to delay the onset of the Obama-era inspection rule for two months, from May 23 to July 24. The comment period closes April 26. Silvey said MSHA has received “a number of comments” in support of extending the effective date, but she stopped short of predicting whether the proposal would be affirmed.

An April 26 article about MSHA’s focus to decrease the amount of miners working alone misstated a number amount in a quote by Pat Silvey. The number is $64,000, in reference to the old game show of the same name.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

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