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MSHA revamping pattern of violation rule

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A new rule from the Mine Safety and Health Administration will strengthen its pattern of violation program, allowing the agency to strengthen its hand to respond to dangerous mining conditions."

The rule was announced Jan. 17 by Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. The rule has been submitted to the Federal Register for publication and will be subject to public review.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said it was clear after Upper Big Branch that some companies were violating lifesaving mine safety requirements repeatedly. He added that he would keep up a fight to reform and strengthen rules that encourage "mines that are fit for people to work in."

"This rule is an important step forward for improving safety in mines across West Virginia and the country," Rockefeller said. "The Department of Labor and MSHA are moving in the right direction and I thank Secretary Solis for her leadership on this issue.  I'm glad to see that the new rules include some of the key reforms from my mine safety bill.  Too many miners have lost their lives on the job, and I am continuing to push for my comprehensive mine safety bill – for our current and future miners, and their families.  This is a preventable tragedy that no family should have to face."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., commented that a strong mining industry starts with a strong commitment to miners. 

"Our coal miners are some of the hardest working people in America, and they are proud to do the heavy lifting that keeps this country strong," Manchin said. "In our state, we're absolutely and totally committed to the safety of every worker – and that means that every worker in our state should be able to get up in the morning and expect to come home safely to their loved ones at night. This new rule is another step forward in making sure that we protect our miners and the integrity of our coal industry."

In announcing the rule, Solis evoked the memory of the Upper Big Branch disaster, where a mine explosion took the lives of 29 Raleigh County miners.

"The tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine should not be forgotten," Solis said. "It exacted a terrible toll on the nation, coal miners' families and coal companies. Over the last three years, the Labor Department has undergone a serious and comprehensive evaluation of mine safety practices, and that has led to reforms to protect America's miners. The rule we are announcing today will hold mine operators accountable when they disregard life-saving safety measures."

Joseph A. Main, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said that the patterns of violation rule is among MSHA's highest priority regulations.

"We think that this final rule will help prevent another tragedy such as occurred at the Upper Big Branch Mine," Main said. "It promotes consistency in applying the POV notice as an enforcement tool, provides for a more open and transparent process, emphasizes operators' responsibility to comply with safety and health standards and monitor their own compliance, and more effectively achieves the statutory intent of the Mine Act."

MSHA said the new proposed patterns of violation rules come from recommendations from the Labor Department's Office of the Inspector General and will strengthen MSHA's ability to deal with troubled mines.

"There has been recognition by many that the system has been broken, with no mine being placed on POV status until 2011 – 33 years after the law went into effect," Main said. "MSHA should not be prevented from taking action to protect the lives of miners for months, or even years, while we await the final outcome of citations and orders that a mine operator can easily contest. The new rule addresses those flaws." 

The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 already allows MSHA to issue a patterns of violation notice to a mine operator that "demonstrates a disregard for the health and safety of miners through a pattern of significant and substantial violations." According to an MSHA release the new rule to be published in the Federal Register includes the following major provisions:

  • Allows MSHA to issue a POV notice without first issuing a potential POV notice.

 

  • Eliminates the existing requirement that MSHA can consider only final orders in its POV review.

 

  • Establishes general criteria and procedures that MSHA will use to identify mines with a pattern of S&S violations.

 

  • Reinforces mine operators' responsibility for compliance with MSHA safety and health standards and for monitoring their mines' compliance.

 

  • Clarifies that MSHA will consider a mine operator's effective implementation of an MSHA-approved corrective action program as a mitigating circumstance in its POV review, if the program contains definitive benchmarks implemented prior to POV notice, and the operator has reduced S&S violations.

 

  • Restates the statutory requirement that, for mines in POV status, each S&S violation will result in a withdrawal order until a complete inspection finds no S&S violations.

Since the explosion at Upper Big Branch, MSHA has issued three responsive regulations. In June 2011 improved rock standards were introduced. In April of last year, additional rules on underground mine examinations were issued.

More information is expected to be available following a teleconference at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 17.

The rule can be viewed at http://www.msha.gov.