Mine Safety:

MSHA Devotes Substantial Effort to Ensuring the Safety and Health of Coal Miners, but Its Programs Could Be Strengthened

GAO-03-945: Published: Sep 5, 2003. Publicly Released: Oct 6, 2003.

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Despite a drop in injury and fatality rates since the formation of the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), mining is still a dangerous industry. Focusing on underground coal mines, GAO assessed how well MSHA oversees its process for reviewing and approving critical types of mine plans and the extent to which MSHA's inspections and accident investigations processes help ensure the safety and health of underground coal miners.

To help ensure the safety and health of underground coal miners, MSHA staff review and approve mine plans, conduct inspections, and investigate serious accidents. In these three areas, GAO found that MSHA has extensive procedures and qualified staff. However, MSHA can improve its oversight, guidance, and human capital planning efforts. MSHA is not effectively monitoring a few key areas. MSHA headquarters does not ensure that 6-month technical inspections of ventilation and roof support plans are being completed in a timely fashion. This may lead to mines operating without up-to-date plans or mine operators not following all requirements of the plans. Additionally, MSHA officials do not always ensure that hazards found during inspections are corrected promptly. Gaps were found in the information that MSHA uses to monitor fatal and nonfatal injuries, limiting trend analysis and agency oversight. Specifically, the agency does not collect information on hours worked by independent contractor staff needed to compute fatality and nonfatal injury rates for specific mines, and it is difficult to link information on accidents at underground coal mines with MSHA's investigations. Guidance provided by MSHA management to agency employees could be strengthened. Some inspection procedures are unclear and are contained in many sources, leading to differing interpretations by mine inspectors. The guidance on coordinating inspections conducted by specialists and regular inspectors is also unclear, resulting in some duplication of effort. Finally, although about 44 percent of MSHA's underground coal mine inspectors will be eligible to retire in the next 5 years, the agency has no plan for replacing them or using other human capital flexibilities available to the agency to retain its highly qualified and trained inspectors. The potential shortage of inspectors may limit MSHA's ability to ensure the safety and health of underground coal miners.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MSHA contracted with RTI International to conduct an in-depth study of how it can improve outreach and better target enforcement and compliance assistance in regard to independent contractors. The study addresses in detail the issue of requiring and collecting new data on independent contractors. MSHA will receive a draft report on the results of the study in September 2005.

    Recommendation: In order to provide better oversight over its operations, including collecting all of the data needed to provide this oversight, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to amend the guidance provided to independent contractors engaged in high-hazard activities requiring them to report information on the number of hours worked by their staff at specific mines so that MSHA can use this information to compute the injury and fatality rates used to measure the effectiveness of its enforcement efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: For certain locations where positions are hard to fill, MSHA expanded its recruitment possibilities by raising the entry-level grade for inspectors to GS-11. It also conducted a job task analysis and tied it to a competency model using the Federal Career Intern Program to fill mission-critical entry-level inspector positions. In October 2004, the agency implemented a revised recruitment-to-hiring process for inspectors. This has improved the quality of its inspectors and reduced hiring time from 180 days to fewer than 60 days. From October 2004 to June 2005, MSHA hired 90 inspectors. It has also adopted a competency-based recruiting approach for other mission critical positions such as engineers and senior level Mine Safety and Health Specialists.

    Recommendation: In order to provide better oversight over its operations, including collecting all of the data needed to provide this oversight, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to develop a plan for addressing anticipated shortages in the number of qualified inspectors due to upcoming retirements, including considering options such as streamlining the agency's hiring process and offering retention allowances.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MSHA has revised its General Inspection Procedures Handbook to consolidate the various guidance documents into one reference manual. MSHA piloted its new inspection procedures in three of its district offices and plans to include them in an electronic resource package for enforcement personnel.

    Recommendation: In order to provide better oversight over its operations, including collecting all of the data needed to provide this oversight, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to update and consolidate guidance provided to its district offices on plan approval and inspections to eliminate inconsistencies and outdated instructions, including clarifying guidance on coordinating technical inspections with regular quarterly inspections of mines.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MSHA stated that, by January 2004, the agency would develop and implement a quarterly review process for key inspection data, including monitoring the timely abatement of violations. In addition, MSHA revised its Accountability Program to ensure that accountability reviews focus on core inspection activities, including the abatement of violations. The revised Accountability Program was approved in March 2005 and distributed to all MSHA supervisors.

    Recommendation: In order to provide better oversight over its operations, including collecting all of the data needed to provide this oversight, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to monitor follow-up actions taken by its district offices to ensure that mine operators are correcting hazards identified during inspections on a timely basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MSHA adopted measures to improve the monitoring capability for 6-month plan reviews and issued guidance on 12/23/03 that defines its standard operating procedures for ensuring that all plan reviews conducted by district personnel are entered into the Mine Plan Approval system in a timely fashion. The agency also has an ongoing project in which all of its data systems will be consolidated in one common platform, including the Mine Plan Approval database.

    Recommendation: In order to provide better oversight over its operations, including collecting all of the data needed to provide this oversight, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to monitor the timeliness of 6-month technical inspections conducted as part of MSHA's review of ventilation and roof control plans to ensure that all inspections are completed by the district offices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MSHA developed and implemented national procedures that ensure information regarding the root causes of all accidents investigated, including non-fatal accidents, is entered into its Accident Investigation database along with information on corrective actions taken. District managers now ensure that the appropriate reviews are conducted and that the completed forms are entered into the database.

    Recommendation: In order to provide better oversight over its operations, including collecting all of the data needed to provide this oversight, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to revise the systems it uses to collect information on accidents and investigations to provide better data on accidents and make it easier to link injuries, accidents, and investigations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

 

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