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MSHA wants to toughen safety check rules

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Before every shift worked in an underground coal mine, coal operators are supposed to check for safety problems. Violations are to be marked with a "danger" sign. No one is supposed to go to work until the violations are fixed.

At least that's what federal mine safety law has said since 1969, when Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

But since 1992, that's not what the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has required. That year, the first Bush administration weakened MSHA regulations, requiring mine safety checks to look for violations only if they posed an immediate hazard to miners.

Now, MSHA chief Joe Main wants to change that. Main, a former United Mine Workers safety director, proposed last week to restore the language Congress intended, as part of his plan to respond to the deaths of 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.

"We need a system that encourages employers to engage in planning and control of hazards," Main told a Senate committee last week. "This kind of planning, coupled with enforcement, will result in actual protection of workers."

The "fireboss" run in a coal mine is a key part of safety and health protections. A fireboss, typically a salaried employee or foreman, goes into the mine before a working shift to check methane level, air flow and other safety conditions.

Under the 1969 law, such safety checks -- called "pre-shift examinations" -- were required to be done within three hours before each shift.

Violations that were discovered were to be written in mine records, and warning signs placed in the area of the violations. Under the 1969 law, this applied to any "condition which constitutes a violation of a mandatory health or safety standard" or "any condition which is hazardous" to workers.

For years, MSHA regulations to implement the 1969 law contained that same language.

But in 1992, MSHA removed the requirement that pre-shift examinations include warning signs for any violation of safety and health standards.

MSHA said at the time that the agency "recognizes that 'technical' violations of mandatory standards may not immediately endanger miners, but where such violations constitute hazards, danger signs must be posted."

In a new regulatory agenda announced April 26, Main's boss, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, announced that the agency was going to propose to revert to the pre-1992 regulatory language to conform to the law Congress passed.

"In the ever-changing mine environment, it is critical that hazardous conditions be recognized and abated quickly," the department's regulatory agenda said. "Operator pre-shift examinations for hazards and violations of mandatory health or safety standards are mandated in the Mine Act and are a critical component of an effective safety and health program for underground mines.

"While this requirement was previously included in regulations, the 1992 final rule addressing ventilation in underground coal mines only included the requirement that the pre-shift examiner look for hazards," the agenda said.

"The 1992 rule omitted from the regulation text taken from the Mine Act requiring examination for violations of mandatory safety or health standards," it said. "The reinstitution of this practice should result in reduced risk of injury, death and illness, and should lead to fewer citations for safety and health violations during MSHA compliance inspections of underground mines."

@tag:Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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