Mining industry seeks ‘voluntary’ safety program

May 4, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

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.

4 Responses to “Mining industry seeks ‘voluntary’ safety program”

  1. wjohn101 says:

    The coal industry policing itself won’t work, state and federal agencies need to keep the heat on. It would however, be a great idea for the industry to actually develop its own “police” force. I think that eventually it will come to that because its one thing to pay millions of dollars in fines while coal prices are high, its another when things are tight.

    I think a better idea, a better use of MSHA, would be to look at the good mines that are out there, and there are many, and put them on an inspection program that would differ from the required quarterly inspection of the entire mine. I would advocate a quarterly spot inspection of the good mines, a week or so to visit all sections and interact with all miners on all shifts.

    Then enough MSHA man hours would be available to practically keep an inspector on site three shifts a day, continually at the compliance challenged mines, or mines that have extraordinarily tough and dangerous physical conditions. To only have a presence for a month or so out of three at an outlaw mine gives them two months to rock and roll. A constant presence (not oversight-that’s not what the mine act commissions MSHA to do, its the operator’s job to run the mine) would eventually bring a mine into compliance.

    You know Ken, I think one thing that might help you out would be for you to ask to visit one of our good mines. You might be surprised at the attitude of management and workers and come to the realization that not all mines are operated by the Al Capone gang.

  2. PJD says:

    I worked in the construction industry as a geotechnical engineer for a good number of years, and this is how the safety program of many construction contractors, specifically non-union ones – work:

    1. If a $7.50 per hour laborer refused to go in an unshored utility trench, he gets fired for “insubordination”.

    2. If, in a rare instance of an OSHA inspection, the laborer is found down in that unshored or unsloped trench, he gets fired for not following safety policy.

    I know this comes across as one of those anecdotes, but I have actually seen it happen in years past.

  3. Minertoo says:

    Feels warm and fuzzy to me! What a great idea! Could be some drawbacks, though. Operators basically cannot be trusted to do this. I reported a stopping needing repaired approximately 2 years ago. I would have to go through the “books” for the exact date. In the pre-shift exam book today, out tomorrow. 6 weeks ago I verbally reported the same wall in the same condition. “I’ll check it out” was the weekend mine foreman in charge response. This week the state mine inspector wrote the violation. “Stopping needs repaired”. Sounds like the “road to zero” is just that, a road to nowhere. Just make sure you wear your gloves and glasses! The road to zero is just another one-way street. Please forgive my cynicism. Our superintindent told us that mining is not a hazardous industry. Yea, right. Maybe not from the corner office.

  4. Rob says:

    VOLUNTARY! You must be joking. The operators had their chance and they failed, and that’s why it’s said that mining laws were written in blood. Rules weren’t passed down because of a meddling beuraucracy, rather, they were written because miners died or were permanently disabled.

    This not only would be bad overall, it wouldn’t even be a good idea to test the concept among the so-called safer mines. Besides, we’ve been there before with the days of the USBM.

    Just look at the number of violations that mines get now, then imagine what would happen if they became more loosely supervised. Sorry NMA, your members created the system they’re working under and thankfully we have these rules.

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