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May 12 — Starting July 1, federal mine inspectors will start toughening enforcement of the agency's illumination, scaling and mine examination rules, Joe Main, assistant secretary of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said at an agency stakeholder meeting May 12.
The illumination and scaling standards were selected because they had each been found to be a factor in six deaths between 2006 and 2015, Main said. The illumination rule requires that mine operators provide lighting sufficient to provide safe working conditions, and the scaling rule stipulates that scaling in metal and nonmetal mines must be performed from a location that doesn't expose workers to injury from falling material.
The exam rule standard is being included because more than 15,000 citations and orders have been issued under the rule since it was implemented in 2012. That rule requires underground coal mines to identify and fix hazardous conditions and violations of nine safety and health standards that pose the greatest risk to miners.
The illumination and exam rules will apply to coal mines, and the scaling rule to metal and nonmetal mines.
“We're going to use our existing tools and up our game,” Main said.
MSHA's enhanced enforcement falls under its Rules to Live By program, which the agency kicked off in 2010 to focus on the most commonly cited standards that have led to mine deaths. In addition to tougher enforcement, the program also includes industry outreach and education.
The first three stages of the Rules to Live By program have helped drive down fatalities by 23 percent, said Jeff Duncan, MSHA's director of educational policy and development. Significant and substantial citations and orders issued for violations of standards covered by the program have fallen by an average of 37 percent. However, more than 45,000 such citations and orders have been issued for those standards since the program began, Duncan said.
“While this is good news and we're moving in the right direction, we're not there yet,” Main said.
Also during his remarks, Main said MSHA's pending silica (RIN:1219-AB36) and mine inspection (RIN:1219-AB87) rules are still in the works. He refrained, however, from offering any timelines, saying he generally avoids making such predictions (46 OSHR 254, 3/17/16).
MSHA has said it intends to use OSHA’s analyses of silica health effects and risks in developing its own rule, adapting them as necessary for the mining industry.
Main also highlighted a wide range of safety improvements throughout the mining sector. Dust and silica concentrations have been falling year over year, he said, and the number of mines identified in MSHA's Pattern of Violation screenings, which pick out the nation's most dangerous mines, has fallen from 51 in 2010 to one in 2015.
Further, the number of significant and substantial violations fell by 39 percent from 2010 to 2015, and only 28 miners died in 2015, the lowest number in MSHA history, Main said.
“The record speaks for itself,” Main said. “What we've done has made a real difference.”
Main told Bloomberg BNA that he attributed the improvements to a range of factors, including a new emphasis on pouncing on safety problems as soon as the agency becomes aware of them, cleaned-up industry guidance, tighter partnerships with industry and a culture change within mines.
While a decline in coal mining activity is responsible for some of the improvements in the raw numbers of deaths and injuries, it doesn't account for the improvements in the percentage rates, Main said.
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