Coal Tattoo

Today’s House committee hearing on “Modernizing Mine Safety” hadn’t even started yet when the press release showed up in my email inbox, promoting the testimony of Arch Coal safety vice president Tony Bumbico on behalf of the National Mining Association. Among other proposals:

Bumbico encouraged the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to adopt a program of mine safety modeled on the very successful Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) administered by the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which promotes a cooperative approach to workplace safety. Employee support and involvement is a prerequisite for acceptance into the VPP. “Performance structures based on risk-based approaches that establish higher standards, engage employees and encourage cooperation simply make sense. If MSHA were to adopt a VPP-type process it would move the industry in that direction,” Bumbico concluded.

For those who are unfamiliar with how the OSHA VPP program works, keep this in mind, as explained by Celeste Monforton on The Pump Handle blog:

A VPP designation exempts the worksite from programmed OSHA inspections, and if an inspection is conducted—because of a complaint, referral or fatality/catastrophe—-the employer is not cited for violations if they are promptly corrected.

This is the sort of thing that the mining industry has been pushing for years … something to either do away with required quarterly inspections or to created a program for “focused inspections” of only the mines with the worst previous safety performance. The National Mining Association, oddly enough, pushed for this previously just two months after the Sago Mine disaster, back in March 2006.

And basically eliminating MSHA — which provides workers with protections much greater than OSHA — was a major plank of the Republican-controlled Congress (with help from the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute) back in the mid-1990s. The idea was also a pet project for Bush administration MSHA chief Dave Lauriski, who went so far as to hire a consultant to try to come up with a way to implement “focused inspections” instead required quarterly mine examinations.

It’s worth remembering that most coal-mine deaths are the result of mine operators violating long-established safety laws and regulations.

And the OSHA VPP program is hardly a model of success, at least according to two critical reports by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (see here and here).

For example, the program hasn’t been very helpful to workers at the U.S. Postal Service, which OSHA ended up targeting for enforcement actions focused on electrical hazards, or to workers at Valero Energy’s Texas City, TX refinery, where one employee died and two others were injured in a 2009 explosion.


It’s also worth revisiting the improved safety performance in the metal/nonmetal mining industry since Congress created mandated inspections at those mines as part of the 1977 mine safety law. Metal/Non-Metal mines, which include sand, stone and gravel quarries, have seen fatalities drop from 134 in 1977 to 23 last year.

But here’s what the National Mining Association told Congress today:

In many respects overly proscriptive regulatory requirements can inhibit the ability of companies to respond proactively to health and safety issues. Often, the time spent dealing with bureaucratic requirements steals precious time that could be spent eliminating a barrier to safe performance. Enforcement is an important safety tool, but its ability to improve performance is limited. Quite simply, there are more effective ways to improve safety performance.