Mining Operators Take Notice: MSHA Unveils Tougher Enforcement Strategies for Rules to Live By and Coal Mine Exam Standards

By: Nicholas W. Scala

MSHA recently revealed plans to more rigorously enforce alleged violations of some of its most heavily cited standards after mining workplace deaths. The Agency will ramp up enforcement of alleged hazards under their “Rules to Live By” collection, which in Agency’s view are many of the crucial safety and health priorities in mining operations.

Mining employers would be well-advised to take a closer look at their compliance with MSHA standards in these key areas, or risk major penalties following an MSHA inspection under the “enhanced” enforcement initiative.

MSHA’s new enforcement push not only targets areas that fall under Rules to Live By, but also nine underground coal mine exam rule standards that MSHA says are focused on the greatest risks to workers in those coal mines.

Assistant Secretary Joseph Main explained the initiative this way:

“While we’ve seen progress in reducing mining deaths associated with both Rules to Live By and the exam rule, mine operators need to conduct better site inspections and take appropriate action to improve compliance with these standards. … That is why we are increasing attention on these critical standards. We urge the mining industry to do the same.”

The stepped-up enforcement formally begins Friday, July 1, though MSHA first signaled its plans during a stakeholder meeting in Arlington, Va., in May.

MSHA launched the Rules to Live By enforcement initiative in 2010, with a focus on the most commonly cited safety standards cited as contributory to fatal mining accidents. Two subsequent phases of the program emphasized preventing catastrophic accidents and common mining deaths.

Main described the results of studies that the Agency believes underscore Rules to Live By:

“MSHA analyzed the cause of death of hundreds of U.S. mining fatalities in a 10-year period to identify the conditions and practices that contributed to the fatalities, safety standards violated, root causes and abatement practices. … With this information, we can better target the causes and take action to prevent needless mining deaths.”

Last year, the Agency released the Rules to Live By Calculator, which allows mine operators to calculate overall alleged violation rates against Rules to Live By – information that MSHA can also wield as an enforcement tool. The calculator compares the number of citations issued under standards included in the Rules to Live By in relation to the number of inspection hours at the mine for a given period of time. The resulting calculation is then compared to national industry averages for the different mining sectors. The mine’s Rules to Live By “score” is listed in green, if under the national average, or red, if over.

Mine’s scoring higher than the sector’s national average may be subjected to impact inspections as a result of this calculation. Although MSHA will be providing printouts of the Rules to Live By Calculator scores to mines in the coming months, the Agency has stated that it is a mine’s responsibility to monitor citations under Rules to Live By and take action to curb such violations. There is no requirement that MSHA notify a mine that its rate is higher than the average, or if there is an issue prior to conducting enhanced enforcement, such as an impact inspection.

In addition to the frequently cited standards, MSHA will rigorously enforce nine standards under the coal mine exam rule that the Agency promulgated four years ago.

The nine standards address ventilation, methane, roof control, combustible materials, rock dust, equipment guarding and other safeguards – all consistent, MSHA says, with the standards emphasized in the Rules to Live By initiative and the types of violations cited in MSHA’s accident investigation report on the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion.

he exam rule requires that, during pre-shift, supplemental, on-shift and weekly examinations, underground coal mine operators must, in addition to examining for hazardous conditions as in the existing regulations, record the actions taken to correct the conditions and violations.

Agency officials also note, “Operators also must review with mine examiners, on a quarterly basis, citations and orders issued in areas where pre-shift, supplemental, on-shift and weekly examinations are required.”

In explaining the new enforcement push, MSHA reports that an Agency analysis of hundreds of U.S. mining fatalities in a 10-year period shows that fatalities associated with Rules to Live By standards have decreased an average of 23 percent, and “significant and substantial” (S&S) citations and orders issued for violations of those standards have declined an average of 37 percent.

It was also found that fatalities associated with the exam rule have decreased an average of 22 percent, and S&S citations and orders issued for violations of that standard have declined an average of 45 percent.

Given MSHA’s continuing focus on standards that it classifies under the Rules to Live By initiative, as well as tough enforcement of the coal mine exam rule, mine operators should ensure monitor compliance, and retain technical and legal expertise when necessary, to avoid costly MSHA citations.

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