Living Up To the Mine Act

Today the Department of Labor proposed a new rule that would help better protect Americans with one of the most dangerous jobs: miners.

For years, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been overly restricted in its use of a powerful tool to protect the health and safety of our nation’s miners: putting a mine on a “Patterns of Violations” (or POV) status and using the additional enforcement tools that determination brings with it. The current system makes it much too difficult to identify such patterns -- too hard for both mine operators and the workers who need the protection this new rule would provide.

In the 30 years since the Mine Act’s passage no mine has ever been placed on a POV. That means that mines we know are consistently putting workers in danger are allowed to continue bad practices without making the needed systemic changes to protect workers. The current regulatory interpretation of the Mine Act fundamentally undermines its intent: to provide MSHA with the tools it needs to protect workers.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking takes critical steps to address flaws in the current rule and reflects the intent of Congress when it wrote the POV statute. Current regulation says that only final orders or citations against a mine can be used to determine if there is a POV. MSHA hasn’t been able to put mines on a POV because mines often contest their citations, leading to lengthy delays before a citation is made final.

To fully understand the scale of these challenges and the way they are used to avoid enforcement, you have to look at the numbers. In November of 2010, there was a backlog of roughly 88,000 contested violations; as a result of this backlog, the average contested violation took over 500 days to become final (even with substantial new resources dedicated to resolving the backlog). From 2006-2010, fewer than 1% of these citations were reversed. As a result, it’s virtually impossible for MSHA to review a mine’s recent compliant history when determining whether there is a POV. The proposed rule would eliminate the requirement that MSHA use only final citations, eliminating lengthy delays in enforcement that endanger workers.

For mine operators that want to do the right thing, the new proposed rule would make it easier for them to comply with the law and avoid a POV. It would simplify the POV criteria, improve consistency in its application and provide a searchable database mine operators can use to track their compliance. It would also provide special consideration for operators that monitor their compliance while taking proactive measures to protect workers.

Too often, we let the myth persist that work place accidents just happen; that they are unavoidable, particularly in industries like mining. That’s just not true. With effective safety measures and strong enforcement, accidents can be avoided. Today’s proposed rule represents a significant step towards providing miners with the safe workplaces that they deserve and that is their right.

Maureen Tracey-Mooney is Senior Policy Analyst in the Office of the Vice President

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