The Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Chris Williamson, followed through on statements he made saying the agency would resume a policy that ended in March 2020, publicizing the mines it targets for impact inspections.

As this edition was going to press, MSHA released the findings of monthly impact inspections at 25 U.S. mines in January and February 2023. The agency said it conducts impact inspections at mines that it believes merit increased attention and enforcement due to factors that include poor compliance history; previous accidents, injuries, and illnesses; and other compliance concerns.

A total of 374 violations and two safeguards were issued by inspectors, including 113 significant and substantial (S&S) and 13 unwarrantable failure findings. An S&S violation is one that is reasonably likely to result in a reasonably serious injury or illness. Violations are designated as an unwarrantable failure when an inspector finds aggravated conduct that constitutes more than ordinary negligence.

“These impact inspections uncovered serious violations, demonstrating that they remain an important enforcement tool to address safety and health issues at mines with poor compliance histories,” Williamson said. “[MSHA] is focused on identifying conditions that can lead to serious accidents given the number of fatalities the mining industry has experienced so far this year. We will continue to use every tool that Congress gave us to protect miners’ safety and health, and we ask the entire mining community to work with us to eliminate safety and health hazards that can cost miners their lives.”

Williamson provided details for two of the inspections: Frontier Coal and Atalco Gramercy.

MSHA conducted an impact inspection on Feb. 1 at Frontier Coal Co.’s Belcher Branch mine, in Wyoming County, West Virginia. In October 2022, the mine operator was issued two unwarrantable failure violations for failing to follow the MSHA-approved roof control plan and not conducting an adequate pre-shift examination; unwarrantable failure violations of the same mandatory standards were found during the impact inspection. MSHA inspectors issued 25 citations and seven orders, finding unwarrantable failure violations for:

Failure to comply with the roof control plan because the operator exceeded the maximum cut depth approved by MSHA at a coal face;

Failure to conduct adequate workplace examinations, including an adequate examination of the continuous mining machine where MSHA found 11 of 28 water sprays were not working;

Miners were not wearing proximity detection system equipment — technology that can prevent pinning, crushing, and striking accidents — and a faulty machine mounted PDS component prevented the system from functioning properly; and

Failure to identify and clean up loose coal and coal dust in active travelways.

When a mine operator takes an unauthorized deep cut, it puts miners at risk of potential roof and rib fall hazards, MSHA said. Conducting adequate workplace examinations is necessary to identify and eliminate hazards that can jeopardize miners’ safety and health.

During the impact inspection, inspectors found that the operator did not install a ventilation curtain in the entry as required by the MSHA-approved ventilation plan. Ensuring proper ventilation in accordance with the plan, functioning water sprays, and cleaning up loose coal and coal dust significantly reduce potential explosion and respirable dust hazards. Specifically, ventilation curtains and water sprays are important tools to protect miners from overexposures to respirable coal dust and silica — the principal causes of lung diseases among miners.

On Jan. 31, MSHA conducted an impact inspection at the Atalco Gramercy LLC, Gramercy Operation—a large alumina mine employing approximately 508 miners—located in St. James, Louisiana. MSHA inspectors issued 36 citations for violations of various mandatory health and safety standards and two orders removing miners who lacked adequate training. Specifically, the operator was cited for the following:

Improper maintenance of electrical equipment, including unsafe electrical cables, missing or damaged inspection and cover plates, and potentially dangerous conditions not corrected before energizing equipment;

Mobile equipment improperly parked on an incline without the brake engaged and the wheels chocked; and

Failing to take prompt appropriate action to correct caustic material spills that exposed miners to possible slips, trips, and falls after the hazards had been identified on workplace examinations.

MSHA said mine operators must ensure that miners receive required training, and if miners do not receive that training, they must be immediately withdrawn from the mine because they are a hazard to themselves and others.

It is important that operators properly maintain electrical equipment, correct potential electrical hazards, and encourage miners to focus on safety when doing work on potentially energized equipment or near electrical lines or wires. To date this year, three miners have died in accidents related to electrical hazards.

MSHA initiated impact inspections in April 2010 after an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia claimed the lives of 29 miners. MSHA resumed conducting regular monthly impact inspections in January 2023 and is publishing the results on its website.