MSHA Releases Hazard Alerts with Industry Associations: Puts Operators on Notice of Possible Violations

By: Nicholas W. Scala

Several recent hazard alerts from MSHA show the Agency is working closely with the private sector and academia to produce co-branded guidance materials, focused on broad high-hazard areas, to prevent worker injuries and even dangers to the broader public. Employers should closely monitor these alerts for the specific risks that concern MSHA.

While MSHA has clearly worked in diligent collaboration with industry in developing these materials, it’s worth noting that if the Agency deems a work setting dangerous enough to issue a hazard warning, there is also high potential for costly citations against operators at these sites.shutterstock_MSHA Hazard Alerts

Developing and issuing hazard alerts – which the Agency often produces in both English and Spanish, sends out to the press and posts on its website – can be viewed part of a two-pronged approach to hazards; that is, informing employers and the public of mine and quarry risks while also issuing citations if workplace standards are allegedly violated.

Old mines pose public risk

MSHA has been issuing hazard alerts for years, and several so far this year draw attention to several broad areas of risk to workers. However, the hazard alert, issued in June, on abandoned mines aims more broadly to protect public safety, emphasizing the dangers to trespassers on desolated mining sites. As MSHA points out:

“Each year, throughout the nation dozens of people are injured or killed while exploring or playing on mine property. The men and women employed in our nation’s mines are trained to work in a safe manner. For trespassers, hazards are not always apparent.”

Agency officials cited several fatality cases at clay pits in Texas and an abandoned quarry in Pennsylvania.

“Water-filled quarries and pits hide rock ledges, old machinery and other hazards. The water can be deceptively deep and dangerously cold. Steep, slippery walls make exiting the water difficult. Hills of loose material can easily collapse on an unsuspecting biker or climber. Vertical shafts can be hundreds of feet deep and may be completely unprotected, or hidden by vegetation.”

Working with the Ohio Aggregates & Industrial Minerals Association, MSHA issued the alert to focus industry on the theme “Stay Out – Stay Alive,” to prevent trespasser fatalities on mine properties. MSHA devoted a web page to the initiative, which includes a nearly 30-minute video detailing the dangers of exploring old mines and quarries.

MSHA also keeps a running list of the known fatal accidents, saying such information, when widely shared, “provides a deterrent to young people who may naively believe that they are invincible.” It is important for operators to realize, that given the strict liability of the Mine Act, the operator can still be held responsible by MSHA for the injuries or fatalities of trespassers.

Cell Phone Use While Operating Mobile Equipment

Most recently, MSHA released an alert regarding the hazards presented by using cell phone while operating mobile equipment. The alert, posted in conjunction with MSHA Alliance member, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, outlines the potential distraction hazards posed by cell phone use.

The alert relies heavily on U.S. Department of Transportation reports regarding the hazards of operating vehicles while using a cell phone, including that “the risks associated of operating mobile equipment while intoxicated are widely known, but using a cell phone can be up to six times worse.”

Additionally, MSHA states “Operating mobile equipment has inherent risks that can be mitigated by training, supervision, maintaining equipment in proper operating condition, and following established procedures; however, using a cell phone introduces the hazard of distracting the equipment operator and increases the chances of being involved in an accident dramatically.”

Operators have both safety and compliance interests in discouraging cell phone use by mobile equipment operators. The obvious, and chief, concern is to prevent incidents and injuries to employees. However, from a compliance perspective, if a mobile equipment operator does have an accident while using a cell phone, the mine can, and likely would, be held liable by MSHA for the employee’s failure to maintain control of the vehicle.

Warehouse hazards highlighted

MSHA issued a hazard alert in May that was more closely aligned with specific dangers to workers, this one aimed at reducing risks in materials storage and warehouse operations. Employers in these industries should carefully review the alert and redouble efforts to eliminate risks.

Again, some of the listed hazards correspond to specific MSHA standards, which, if found in violation, MSHA inspectors are likely to cite. In fact MSHA specifically points to compliance with 30 C.F.R. Part 56 and Part 57, mental and nonmetal mines. This hazard alert shows that MSHA is keeping an eye out for violations in these areas; as the Agency noted:

“Miners working in warehouses are exposed to hazards that can result in traumatic injuries, musculoskeletal disorders or illnesses from exposure to harmful chemicals. Storing, handling and transporting materials around and inside warehouses can be hazardous work, but maintaining focus on safe job procedures and complying with (standards) will lower the risks associated with working in a warehouse on mine property. By following best practices, mine operators and miners can lower the risk of injury or illness.”

MSHA developed the hazard alert in conjunction with New Mexico Tech. The alert details numerous “best practices” in warehouse operations.

MSHA advises to employers: examining the warehouse on each working shift, repairing or correcting any unsafe equipment or conditions; establishing safe procedures to accomplish warehouse tasks before beginning work; and identifying and eliminating or controlling all hazards associated with the work to be performed.

Miners must be trained on the task to be performed, and delivery workers must receive site-specific training unless accompanied by an experienced miner, according to MSHA.

“Do not assign a person to work alone in areas where hazardous conditions could endanger employee safety, and account for everyone at the end of the shift.”

MSHA advises wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, such as a hard hat, safety shoes, gloves and glasses; providing and maintain clean, clear access to warehouses, storage areas and stored materials; keeping aisles, travelways and exits clear and free of slip, trip and strike-against hazards; and storing flammable, combustible and hazardous materials in a way that minimizes the dangers.

“Organize and label storage areas so parts and materials can be quickly located without searching. Store materials and supplies in an organized manner to ensure easy access for retrieval and transportation. Place heavier loads on lower or middle shelves. Store long, tall or top-heavy items on their side or secure them to prevent tipover. Place ladders on stable, level surfaces, and use stair platforms to access materials in higher locations.”

MSHA also advises employers on workers lifting materials properly.

“Bend your knees, keep your back straight, hold the load close to your body, maintain a clear vision path and turn your feet and whole body together (never twist at your waist). To the extent feasible, lift and handle loads in the body’s ‘power zone’: between knees and shoulders. Use powered equipment such as a forklift or hydraulic fork jack instead of manually lifting heavy materials.”

Proximity detection a concern

MSHA also raised a more specific concern recently, based on two incidents this year related to proximity detection systems (PDS), one involving a worker injury and the other an inspection finding that the shutdown zones were set too close to the machine. Agency officials say:

“In both of these instances MSHA found that the warning and shutdown zones were not set properly and that pre-operational checks of the PDS were not being conducted in the manner recommended by the manufacturer.”

This hazard alert, which MSHA produced on its own, advises employers to ensure that PDS are installed and maintained in proper operating condition by a trained person; and conduct pre-operational checks by following procedures provided by PDS manufacturers.

Employers should also make sure PDS software is updated periodically by manufacturers, contacting them to ensure that these updates are installed regularly; and verify that the warning and shutdown zones are set as recommended by the manufacturer and “according to company policy to stop the machine before a miner is contacted,” MSHA says.

Ensure that both the Miner Wearable Component and the Machine Mounted Components indicate corresponding warning and shutdown zone status, MSHA also advises.

MSHA has produced a video on General Inspection Procedures for Proximity Detection Devices, and says if technical issues arise, the employer should contact both the PDS manufacturer and the local MSHA District Office.

Stockpile accidents raise red flag

One other safety alert that MSHA issued on its own, early this year, tackled safety in stockpile handling. Agency officials expressed concern because during calendar year 2015, seven dozers were involved in stockpile accidents – fortunately without injury.

According to MSHA, most of the accidents involved the dozer falling into a hidden cavity created when material “bridged” over a feeder and material beneath the bridge was withdrawn, adding that:

“Bridging can occur when equipment compacts the material at the surface of the pile or if the surface material freezes. Stockpiles that have sat idle for a period of time can also become more prone to bridging due to consolidation of the pile material. None of the accidents involved injuries to miners; however, each had the potential to be serious.”

MSHA advises several best practices, among them: Implement a system to detect cavities and warn all potentially affected parties; use safe procedures to eliminate a cavity; and never operate equipment directly over a feeder.

“Markers should be placed directly overhead of a feeder to indicate its location. Consider the installation of a proximity detection system to alert equipment operators if they are approaching a predetermined distance from the feeder. Install lights or signal systems that identify which feeders are operating. Always operate equipment facing the feeder.”

MSHA further says special high strength safety glass should be installed in dozer cabs used on stockpiles, and advises equipping stockpile dozers with a transmitter that sounds an alarm and stops feeders and belts when the signal is lost.

“Always securely store SCSR and flashlights in the dozer cabs. Provide specialized training to miners on alarm response, equipment needs and recovery of a disabled dozer. This can save time and potentially life.”

MSHA also directs employers to its web page on stockpile safety for more information.

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