On May 5, 2014, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) hosted a stake-holder meeting in Arlington, Virginia to discuss what the agency believes are root causes underlying a recent spike in metal and non-metal fatalities between October 2013 and April 2014. While Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph Main carefully pointed out that industry fatalities rates have fallen each year between 2011 and 2013, Secretary Main’s message was equally clear: mine operators can and must do a better job training their staff, conducting pre-shift workplace and equipment inspections, and cementing a “culture of safety” from the top down, from mine management to the newest hourly miner. MSHA understands that it is working from a relatively small sample size, and that agency investigators have only completed accident investigations for six of the 19 fatalities between October and 1, 2013 and May 5, 2014. Nonetheless, mine safety and health district supervisors and inspectors have already been instructed to respond to the fatality-rate increase with increased vigilance, and metal and non-metal operators can expect enhanced scrutiny in the priority areas Secretary Main and his senior leaders identified during the stakeholder meeting.
Secretary Main and Neil Merrifield, administrator for metal and non-metal, placed heavy emphasis on training as a theme throughout their presentations. In MSHA’s view, the one constant underlying each accident the agency evaluated is that each could have been prevented if operators committed to more vigilant workforce training. MSHA asserts, for example, that a violation of 30 C.F.R. § 46.7(b) (new task training) was a contributory factor in two of the accidents it investigated. Mr. Merrifield stated that as a result, operators should review task training policies to ensure they are current and accurately reflect the changing nature of their mines and their miners’ activities. Mr. Merrifield also instructed operators to ensure that miners are properly trained for all elements of their day-to-day tasks, since many of those elements may change on a daily basis.
Second, MSHA identified several pre-shift inspection standards as contributory factors underlying a handful of the 19 fatal accidents, including 30 C.F.R. §§ 56.18002 (examination of working places), 56.14100(b) (examination of equipment for defects affecting safety) 56.3130 (wall, bank and slope stability), 56.3200 (correction of hazardous conditions), and 56.3401 (examination of ground conditions). Three out of these five standards are listed as MSHA “rules to live by,” leading the agency to consider violations of these standards particularly egregious. Therefore, we expect enforcement personnel to be looking closely for alleged violations of these standards on an ongoing basis.
Finally, MSHA noted that six of the 19 victims subject to its analysis came from the ranks of mine management. This statistic is troubling for MSHA, as the agency expects operators to assert a strong culture of safety from the top-down, and believes that if supervisors are taking risks or short-cuts, rank-and-file miners will not be far behind. This last point could prove particularly instructive for operators. Even though MSHA has not completed investigations for 13 of the 19 fatalities under the scope of the agency’s review, a potential surge in inspection-interest into supervisory behavior could yield increased reliance on Section 110(c) of the Mine Act.
While it is not likely that MSHA is planning a full-scale change in enforcement priorities at metal and non-metal mines in response to the increased fatality rate over the past six months, subtle enforcement trends focused on training, pre-shift inspections, and the overall culture of safety driven by mine management will come into focus as district enforcement staff reacts to Arlington’s growing concern. We therefore expect MSHA to use all of the tools in the agency’s toolkit, including increased reliance on auditing, as it works to reverse the short-term fatality trend at metal and non-metal mines.