“Although eight years have passed, the memories of that tragic day have not diminished,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “We are grateful for the commission’s decision in this case reaffirming the importance of immediate reporting of mine accidents.”
Although the explosion occurred at 6:26 a.m., MSHA was not contacted until 7:50 a.m., and efforts to reach a mine rescue team member at his home did not take place until 8:04 a.m. Consequently, MSHA issued a citation and order to the mine operator for failure to: immediately notify the agency of the explosion, comply with the mine’s emergency evacuation and firefighting program, and immediately contact the mine rescue team.
Feldman concluded that commission case law permitted the operator a reasonable opportunity to investigate the event prior to being required to contact authorities. He also reasoned that the operator’s negligence in not immediately reporting the incident was mitigated by mine management’s wish to execute a rescue attempt and to not be barred from entering the mine. Feldman also took into account the fact that the event occurred on January 2 (when the national holiday for New Year’s Day was being observed) since January 1 fell on a Sunday that year, so MSHA and state offices were closed, making it difficult to reach authorities.
On appeal, a two-member commission majority held, in agreement with MSHA, that the ALJ erred because he: (1) miscalculated the time at which the mine operator’s duty to report commenced; (2) treated the intentional nature of the operator’s failure to report as a mitigating factor; (3) treated the fact that the explosion occurred on a federal holiday as a mitigating factor; and (4) failed to consider the fact that, when the operator finally attempted to report the explosion, it relied solely on an off-site management official who had limited knowledge of the explosion and limited information and resources available to him at home. In addition to reinstating MSHA’s unwarrantable failure and high negligence designations, the commission assessed the company with MSHA’s proposed penalties of $1,500 and $13,000 for two separate citations.
“The operator’s intention to assist underground personnel during this emergency, while admirable, is exactly the type of conduct that the [Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977] and the secretary’s regulations are intended to address and avoid,” wrote the commission majority. “The moments after a mining accident are difficult and frantic, but crucial to an effective response is strict adherence to an operator’s emergency plan and to the relevant MSHA standards governing conduct after an accident occurs.”
MSHA Implements UBB Correctives On Time After Groundbreaking Internal Review
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials have announced the completion of one of the most comprehensive internal reviews in agency history, after addressing 100 recommendations following the April 2010 Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine disaster.
That deadline-driven report analyzed MSHA actions in the months preceding the explosion, which killed 29 miners, injured two and led to sweeping mine safety changes industry-wide.
“The review was designed to identify shortcomings so that we could take actions to improve mine safety and health,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “The result was one of the most extensive improvements at the agency in decades.”
In June 2012, MSHA officials began posting quarterly updates on their website of completed corrective actions. The MSHA, however, implemented administrative, organizational and regulatory reforms in the immediate aftermath ahead of survey results.
Reforms included enhanced enforcement programs, including impact inspections and a revised pattern of violations process; the splitting of the southern West Virginia coal district into two districts; and the upgrading of the Mount Hope, W.Va., laboratory for better coal dust and gas analyses.
Additional measures included reorganization of the MSHA Office of Assessments, Accountability, Special Enforcement and Investigations to better manage and support enforcement, and the publication of final regulations of rock dust maintenance, examinations in underground mines and a program aimed at chronic violators.
“Meeting self-imposed timelines was a major challenge,” added Main, noting other demands facing the agency, including mission-critical needs, sequestration and the 16-day government shutdown. “MSHA was able to maintain schedule throughout the process and finish actions on time — a testament to the hard work and dedication of our employees.”
Other corrective actions included revisions or developments affecting more than 40 policy directives, mine inspection procedure handbooks and a new coal roof control handbook. More than 20 MSHA training sessions were also addressed, including a new centralized system to improve oversight across agency directives and consistency guidance.
Further new measures included a modification of the Mine Plan Approval database system and the integration of a common tracking system for inspector re-training and creation, with the Holmes Safety Association and mining community, of a national mine rescue organization.
“The Upper Big Branch tragedy shook the very foundation of mine safety,” added Main. “It caused us to re-double efforts to instill a culture of prevention in mining. These actions are part of MSHA’s efforts to improve conditions so miners can go to work, do their jobs and return to their loved ones safe and healthy at the end of every shift.”
Following the event, MSHA and mining community initiatives have led to fewer mines with chronic violations, record reductions in temporary reinstatements and discrimination case filings, and a reduction of breathable dust to lowest exposure levels in history. Other breakthroughs have included lowest fatal and injury rates in 2011 and again in 2012 and lowest fatal and injury rates and number of mining deaths ever recorded in a fiscal year.
A list of MSHA’s corrective actions can be found on the Upper Big Branch single source page at: www.msha.gov/PerformanceCoal/