MSHA Publishes Final Rule on Examinations in Underground Coal Mines

The rule is geared to enhance miners' health and safety by requiring mine operators to identify and correct hazardous conditions and violations of nine health and safety standards that pose the greatest risk to miners.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration recently published the final rule "Examinations of Work Areas in Underground Coal Mines for Violations of Mandatory Health or Safety Standards." The rule is geared to enhance miners' health and safety by requiring mine operators to identify and correct hazardous conditions and violations of nine health and safety standards that pose the greatest risk to miners, including the kinds of conditions that led to the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

"Many of the same types of violations of mandatory health and safety standards are repeatedly found by MSHA inspectors in underground coal mines every year," said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "It is critically important for mine operators to take ownership of health and safety. By expanding the existing requirement that operators identify and correct hazardous conditions to include violations of these nine standards, a number of fatalities and injuries may be prevented."

The nine standards address ventilation, methane, roof control, combustible materials, rock dust, equipment guarding, and other safeguards. They are consistent with the standards emphasized in MSHA's "Rules to Live By" initiative and the types of violations cited in MSHA's accident investigation report on the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion as contributing to the cause of that deadly accident.

The rule requires that, during pre-shift, supplemental, on-shift, and weekly examinations, underground coal mine operators must, in addition to examining for hazardous conditions as in the existing regulations, record the actions taken to correct the conditions and violations. Operators also must review with mine examiners on a quarterly basis citations and orders issued in areas where pre-shift, supplemental, on-shift, and weekly examinations are required. The rule was proposed in December 2010, and five public hearings were held in June and July 2011. Mine operators are currently required by law to conduct these examinations; the final rule will ensure that such examinations are maximally effective in preventing injuries and fatalities by requiring operators to examine and fix violations of those standards that represent the greatest risk to underground coal miners, MSHA said.

"As we've said so many times before, MSHA cannot be at every mine every day," Main said. "This rule places mine operators in a proactive—rather than reactive—role by requiring them to conduct examinations to identify a potentially hazardous condition before it results in a danger to miners."

In 2010, MSHA cited approximately 173,000 violations, of which approximately 80,000 were attributable to underground coal mines, even though these mines represent 4 percent of all mines.

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