By Stephen Lee
Aug. 30 — Federal regulators will engage coal miners and mine operators in a series of national “walk and talk” meetings, responding to eight deaths and more than 1,100 accidents that have occurred in mines since last October, the Mine Safety and Health Administration announced.
MSHA chief Joe Main said Aug. 29 the meetings, slated to begin immediately and run through Sept. 30, are meant to “increase miners’ awareness of recent accidents, encourage the application of safety training and raise hazard recognition.”
Industry lawyers, however, were quick to warn that the project will lead to more enforcement actions against employers.
“There’s no question that this will involve enforcement activity,” Henry Chajet, a management attorney with Husch Blackwell LLP, told Bloomberg BNA. “Whenever you’re sending inspectors into mine sites for additional efforts or additional visits beyond what they would normally be doing, you’re going to get additional enforcement. That’s what inspectors do—they write paper. You can’t put a police officer on Interstate 95 with a speed gun and not expect him to write tickets, even if his job is just to get people to slow down for the 4th of July holiday.”
An MSHA spokeswoman confirmed to Bloomberg BNA that inspectors will enter mines and “will enforce the Mine Act and Code of Federal Regulations when conditions warrant.”
Nicholas Scala, senior counsel at Conn Maciel Carey PLLC, said the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act gives MSHA both the right to enter a mine at any time, as well as the obligation to write citations when they believe a violation has taken place.
Scala also agreed with Chajet that the activity is likely to result in more citations.
“This is another way to get into mines,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “I wouldn’t say it’s an overreach, because [MSHA] can be there whenever they want, but it’s another reason to walk into a mine and talk to miners and look around and see if anything’s out of place with the standards.”
Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA special assistant to the assistant secretary, said walk and talks are nothing new for MSHA.
“When the agency sees a troubling trend, it rightfully directs its inspectors—who are already authorized to conduct inspections at any time—to spend a bit of extra time talking with miners and management about the new hazard or the injury trend,” Monforton, now a lecturer at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, told Bloomberg BNA. “In some ways, it’s what MSHA does all the time. The announcement is simply a way for the agency to let the public know it recognizes the trend and is trying to address it.”
By law, underground mines must be inspected four times a year, and surface mines twice a year.
Under the initiative, MSHA personnel will go to mines where a regular inspection hasn’t yet been completed, unless a mine that has recently been inspected is nearby, the agency spokeswoman said.
MSHA said most of the 1,100 recent accidents resulted in injuries to the back, shoulders, knees and fingers. At least 30 of the accidents could have led to fatalities, the agency said. The majority of those accidents were attributed to powered haulage and electrical and machinery classifications.
Most of the accidents took place in West Virginia, with 419. Kentucky followed with 191.
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