When I was writing a post earlier today about the latest disclosure of inaction by the Tomblin administration on mine safety issues, I was reminded of how the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration likes to brag about “using all of its tools” to protect the health and safety of miners, while at the same time the record shows MSHA for many years ignored many of its toughest tools — like citing companies for a “pattern of violations” or seeking court injunctions to close down renegade mining operations, or issuing “flagrant penalties” for the worst kinds of violations.
Of course, you wouldn’t know about MSHA’s long history of inaction on many of these things if you read agency chief Joe Main’s commentary in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail touting the anniversary of the 1977 mine safety act. The commentary, for example, touted the addition of the “pattern of violations” enforcement tool, without mentioning that MSHA just finally got around to actually using that tool:
It creates effective enforcement tools that allow MSHA to issue citations and orders for “unwarrantable failures” by the mine operator and to address chronic violators — mine operators who establish a “pattern of violations” of mandatory safety or health standards.
And, in the commentary, MSHA pats itself on the back for finally beginning to stand up for the rights of coal miners to not be punishes for complaining about poor safety conditions, again without explaining why it took so long for this part of the law to finally be enforced:
The law also includes provisions that protect miners against loss of pay for the time a miner’s representative spends accompanying a federal inspector during an inspection and provides compensation during periods when a mine is idled because of a withdrawal order (which temporarily ceases production) issued by MSHA.
It enhances anti-discrimination provisions and, for the first time, provides miners an opportunity for temporary reinstatement to their jobs while pursuing complaints.
Maybe it’s unfair to expect Joe Main, now that he’s running MSHA, to actually talk about the agency’s warts, especially since he has actually begun to make progress on some important changes, such as the new pattern of violations rule finalized in January.
I gather the goal here is for MSHA to launch its latest public relations blitz, an effort to celebrate the anniversary of the 1977 Act’s passage. You can check out a new section of the MSHA website dedicated to this effort here, with an explanation of the law’s impacts here and the changes made by the 1977 law over the 1969 law here.
But as the 3rd anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster approaches, it’s worth remembering the key things that led Congress to update the 1969 coal-mine safety law with the 1977 mine safety law. And MSHA makes reference to these things on its website:
Following that  legislation, mining tragedies continued. On March 9, 1976, 15 men died in the first of two explosions at the Scotia Mine. Two days later, 11 more men were killed at the mine. Among those who died were three Federal mine inspectors. A few years before that, on May 2, 1972 at the Sunshine silver mine in Idaho, a fire engulfed the mine and ninety-one workers lost their lives from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. These metal/nonmetal miners were not protected by the 1969 law.
Congress decided that more needed to be done to end tragic mining disasters and to provide metal/nonmetal miners with the same protections as coal miners – and enacted the 1977 Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. Its effective date was March 9, 1978 – two years to the day after that terrible tragedy at Scotia.
But if you read the legislative history, you learn that Scotia wasn’t just some unavoidable tragedy:
Section 105(d) provides a new sanction which requires the issuance of a withdrawal order to an operator who has an established pattern of health and safety violations which are of such a nature as could significantly and substantially contribute to the cause and effect of mine health and safety hazards. The need for such a provision was forcefully demonstrated during the investigation by the Subcommittee on Labor of the Scotia mine disaster which occurred in March 1976 in Eastern Kentucky. That investigation showed that the Scotia mine, as well as other mines, had an inspection history of recurrent violations, some of which were tragically related to the disasters, which the existing enforcement scheme was unable to address. The Committee’s intention is to provide an effective enforcement tool to protect miners when the operator demonstrates his disregard for the health and safety of miners through an established pattern of violations.
Among the lessons learned from the deaths of those 29 men at Upper Big Branch is that MSHA simply hadn’t done its job regarding the POV provisions of the 1977 law. As an Inspector General’s report concluded after the disaster:
MSHA has not successfully exercised its POV authority in 32 years. Administration of this authority has been hampered by a lack of leadership and priority in the Department across various administrations.
In another commentary posted by the Department of Labor under the heading, “From the Assistant Secretary’s Desk,” Joe Main explained the successes of the 1977 law:
In 1977, there were 273 mining fatalities in the United States. Last year, we brought that number down to 35. Between 1977 and 2011, the fatality rate dropped from .0645 to .0114, a decrease of 82%. In 2011, we saw the lowest fatal injury rates in history, and 2012 preliminary data show those numbers to be better than 2011 and a historic low. Simply stated, the 1977 Mine Act is an act that saves lives!
Just think how many more lives could have been saved if MSHA hadn’t waited 32 years to enforce that landmark law.