Mine Safety Agency Inefficient on Workplace Warnings: Report

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By Stephen Lee

Oct. 11 — Federal mine safety officials aren’t responding efficiently to worker complaints about dangerous conditions, the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General said in a recent report.

One of the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s 12 coal districts, covering almost the entire nation west of the Mississippi River, took an average of 47 minutes to notify mine operators upon receiving a complaint about an imminent danger, the OIG said. The five other MSHA districts audited by the OIG averaged 40 minutes.

“Any delays in communicating information about an imminent danger places miners’ safety and health at unnecessary risk,” the report said.

Region 9’s lag was likely due to the fact that Region 9’s staff doesn’t contact a mine operator directly when it takes in a complaint, the OIG said. Rather, staff relay complaints first to a field office, which then reaches out to the operator.

Adding an intermediate step increases the risk of an accident while the notification is being sent, the OIG said.

MSHA chief Joseph Main filed a written response to the OIG, saying he agrees with “some, but not all,” of the report’s conclusions and recommendations.

Inconsistent Timeline Goals

The report further alleged that two of the six districts audited didn’t have specific timeliness goals for completing complaint inspections, instead requiring them to be completed “as soon as possible.” The four other districts had targets for resolving complaints that ranged from 10 to 30 days.

“Without concrete, consistent timeliness goals, MSHA cannot monitor the program or judge its effectiveness,” the OIG said.

Further, staffers at MSHA’s Hazardous Condition Complaints call center, which takes complaint calls, aren’t properly trained and don’t have scripts to lead them through phone conversations, according to the report.

As a result, 12 percent of the call reports lacked sufficient detail, such as which equipment was malfunctioning or where a hazard was located, the OIG found. Vague complaints can undermine MSHA’s ability to carry out efficient, focused inspections, the report said.

MSHA Responds

Out of 12 test calls, 10 representatives asked no follow-up questions and two didn’t tell the caller they had the right to remain anonymous, the OIG reported. One representative “rushed our caller” and restarted the script of standard questions halfway through the call, “repeating the same questions that the caller had already answered.”

The report called on MSHA to implement agencywide guidelines for handling complaints, provide refresher training to call center personnel and develop standard completion goals for post-complaint inspections.

In his written response, Main agreed that MSHA could improve its guidelines and call center training, and has already begun implementing those changes.

Main also said, however, that MSHA is already responding to 100 percent of imminent danger complaints within one day of receiving them.

On Oct. 11, MSHA announced that a record low 24 deaths occurred at mines in fiscal year 2016. That represented a 37 percent drop from the previous fiscal year.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The Office of Inspector General’s Report, “MSHA Can Improve How It Responds to and Tracks Hazardous Condition Complaints,” is available at http://www.oig.dol.gov/public/reports/oa/2016/05-16-002-06-001.pdf.

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