In its June 7 ruling, the court unanimously upheld the secretary of labor’s interpretation that, in evaluating the significant and substantial nature of violations of standards that come into play only in the event of an emergency, one must assume the occurrence of the emergency. The court agreed that “emergency safety standards are fundamentally different from non-emergency standards because they are designed to apply meaningfully only in times of emergency.”

Under Section 104(d)(1) of the Mine Act, if the authorized representative finds that there has been a violation of a mandatory health or safety standard and also finds that the violation “is of such nature as could significantly and substantially contribute to the cause and effect of a coal or other mine safety or health hazard,” then the inspector is to include that finding in the citation issued for the violation. Such a finding of a S&S violation is a precondition for enhanced enforcement actions under the Mine Act.

The appeal involved Cumberland Coal Resources LP’s Cumberland mine in Greene County, Pa. Cumberland argued that the commission applied the wrong standard when it reversed an administrative law judge’s determination that the violations were not significant and substantial, and that even if it applied the correct standard, its findings were not supported by substantial evidence.

During a December 2007 inspection, an MSHA special investigator inspected four of Cumberland’s escape-ways over a four-day period and issued a citation for each, alleging a violation of the lifeline requirement. The investigator designated each violation an S&S, finding that, in the event of an emergency, requiring miners to use the lifeline and the location of the lifeline would have delayed miners’ escape, and that the delay would have been reasonably likely to result in serious injury or death.