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Has MSHA Lost Its Will To Enforce?

This article deals with the lack of strong enforcement of MSHA safety regulations which may have played a role in recent mining disasters. The author has over 35 years experience in safety with 10 years as an MSHA engineer and inspector.


After 35 years as an health, safety , and environmental advisor and manager who spent 10 years with MSHA as an engineer and technical advisor, I wonder what has become of the MSHA I remember which vigorously enforced safety rules and shut down mines if there was evidence that miners could be injured or killed. This paper deals with where MSHA was and where it should be. I am saddened by the numerous mine disasters and lack of strong enforcement by MSHA.

The MSHA I Remember

I was part of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) from 1971 until 1981 when I left to set up the safety program for the newly established, Shell Oil (Mining) subsidiary. I can still recall the Blacksville #1 mining disaster of 1972 which cost 9 miners their lives. I was part of the rescue and recovery team and vividly recall that MSHA was totally in charge of the disaster recovery and accident investigation. MSHA cooperated with the West Virginia Department of Mines as well as mining management without relinquishing its authority. As an engineer who was a specialist in roof control and mine ventilation, I spent countless hours surveying mines with the objective of ensuring that the mines were operating in a safe manner. If I encountered any indication otherwise, a meeting was held with mine management and an understanding was reached that conditions would improve or else. That “or else” was enforcement of the MSHA statutes through either a citation or shut-down order. Shut down orders were used frequently by MSHA when I was there. The citations were viewed by mine operators as a nuisance since the fines usually was only a few hundred dollars. It seemed to me that only the shut down orders got the mine manager's attention when safety violations were repeated. While at MSHA, I shut down many unsafe mines, sometimes for several days until they agreed to improve safety and submit a plan for doing so. I had full backing of my regional MSHA manager as well as MSHA in Washington, D.C. Lately, I have been appalled at the lack of strong enforcement by MSHA i.e., not shutting down mines for serious and repeat safety violations. Repeated violations of MSHA regulations should result in severe penalties and even criminal indictment of mine managers. Few of these enforcement tools have been utilized by MSHA in recent years.

What to Do?

MSHA must change its present culture of being too cozy with mine operators, and must go back to its mandate of protecting the lives of miners. This means asking for the resignation of the present MSHA Director and installing a former miner who will strictly enforce the mine safety laws. MSHA must immediately start using its authority to shut down unsafe mining operations and require that plans be submitted and approved before these rogue mines can resume operation.. The Executive branch must support local MSHA inspectors in this effort and not impose undue pressure over MSHA inspectors to appease mining companies and their lobbyists.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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