Mine Safety:

Better Oversight and Coordination by MSHA and Other Federal Agencies Could Improve Safety for Underground Coal Miners

GAO-07-622: Published: May 16, 2007. Publicly Released: May 16, 2007.

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The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, the Department of Labor's Office of the Solicitor, the states, and the mining industry share responsibility for ensuring mine safety. GAO examined the challenges underground coal mines face in preparing for emergencies, how well MSHA oversees mine operators' training efforts, how well MSHA and NIOSH coordinate to enhance the development and approval of mine safety technology, and how civil penalties are assessed. To address these issues, GAO surveyed a representative sample of active underground coal mines, analyzed agency data, conducted site visits, and talked with agency officials and other experts. The survey results are estimated at the 95 percent confidence level.

Underground coal mine operators face significant challenges preparing for emergencies, including ensuring that miners receive realistic training and organizing mine rescue teams that satisfy new requirements. While mine operators recognize the importance of providing training in an environment that simulates an emergency, many of them are challenged by having limited access to special training facilities and meeting the cost of providing such training. MSHA has materials for providing specific hands-on training for mine emergencies, but it does not provide all mine operators with information and tools for training under simulated emergency conditions. In addition to the challenges of providing miners with realistic training, mine operators anticipated challenges in implementing the mine rescue team requirements in recent legislation, such as meeting the requirement to conduct training annually at each mine covered by a mine rescue team. MSHA approves mine operators' training plans and inspects their training records, but its oversight of miner training is hampered by several factors. MSHA has general guidelines for items to be considered when approving new instructors, but its standards are inconsistent, and it has no continuing education requirements for instructors. MSHA also does not have current information on its instructors and does not ensure that they keep their knowledge and skills up to date. In addition, MSHA does not adequately monitor instructors or evaluate training sessions, and does not assess how well miners are learning the skills being taught. MSHA and NIOSH have a common mission to improve the safety and health of coal miners, but do not have a current memorandum of understanding to guide their coordination efforts or formally involve each other in strategic planning efforts. As a result, coordination between the two agencies is largely informal and inconsistent. Most of the coordination that occurs is initiated by individual staff members or by outside parties. Such informal coordination may not be sufficient given the pending retirements of many engineers and scientists and other challenges that both agencies face. While most of the penalties proposed by MSHA are paid by mine operators without opposition, a small percentage of the cases involving more serious and higher dollar penalties are appealed, and those appealed are reduced significantly. Between 1996 and 2006, MSHA proposed assessing mine operators 506,707 penalties for violations of underground coal mine safety and health standards--at an average penalty amount of $234 per violation. MSHA uses a standard formula to propose penalties, but the other entities involved in the appeals process such as Labor's Solicitor's Office use considerable discretion in deciding on the final penalty amount. Approximately 6 percent (31,589) of the violations were appealed by mine operators. About half of the penalties for the appealed violations were reduced by an average of 49 percent, regardless of the seriousness of the gravity of the violation and the degree of operator's negligence.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help mines train their workers under simulated emergency conditions, the Secretary of Labor should direct MSHA to publicize information and available tools for training mine workers under such conditions. In addition, MSHA should periodically review and update this information, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MSHA has developed and placed on its webpage video clips demonstrating the correct procedures for donning and transferring emergency breathing devices. Also, presentations have been made at a variety of conferences and the hands-on training was conducted for 2,164 mine workers at 475 mines. In addition, MSHA awarded a number of grants to mines in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Alabama, Kentucky, and Indiana to provide simulated mine emergency training giving miners the opportunity to practice in environments similar to those found in an actual mine emergency. To provide mine operators with additional options, MSHA noted that is has asked NIOSH to examine methods of providing simulated emergency training and to consider the cost of these methods.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that mine workers are adequately prepared for emergencies, MSHA should strengthen its monitoring of training. This monitoring should include reviewing and standardizing districts' procedures for approving new instructors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Mine Safety and Health Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MSHA is no longer provisionally approving mine safety instructors. The agency eliminated the code in the system and instructed agency officials that an instructor can qualify for the position based on subject-matter knowledge and effective teaching skills. If an instructor cannot provide evidence of these two qualifications, they should not be approved as an instructor.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that mine workers are adequately prepared for emergencies, MSHA should strengthen its monitoring of training. This monitoring should include establishing continuing education requirements for instructors to help instructors maintain or improve their knowledge and skills.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Mine Safety and Health Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) reported that, in lieu of continuing education requirements, which would require notice and comment rulemaking, it has increased the agency's emphasis on monitoring and evaluating approved instructors to assure that instructors have maintained or improved their knowledge and skills to effectively train miners. When necessary, MSHA will provide retraining.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that mine workers are adequately prepared for emergencies, MSHA should strengthen its monitoring of training. This monitoring should include improving the data in its records on approved instructors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Mine Safety and Health Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MSHA has conducted data improvement efforts, including reaching out to instructors to update their addresses. This effort was conducted in conjunction with issuing new identification numbers to the active instructors. As the instructor registers the new number, s/he was prompted to update their information. In addition, MSHA is considering more permanent approaches to updating instructor information. However, additional changes will require changes to the regulations.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that mine workers are adequately prepared for emergencies, MSHA should strengthen its monitoring of training. This monitoring should include developing a process for monitoring miner training that includes regularly evaluating training sessions, assessing how well learning objectives are being met, and providing feedback to instructors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Mine Safety and Health Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MSHA has taken several steps to monitor and evaluate miner training. (1) The agency developed an instructor evaluation form that is currently being used by all MSHA personnel and contractors who monitor training. The new evaluation instrument allows MSHA officials to more effectively evaluate an instructor's ability to teach and knowledge of the subject matter. MSHA is instituting a pilot-project to automate the evaluation process. In FY2010, a handheld computer will be programmed with the new evaluation instrument. Evaluators will be able to record information directly into the computer and upload the data to a database where statistical analysis will be conducted.(2) The agency is evaluating the effectiveness of training by conducting interviews of the miners trained. (3) MSHA evaluated 675 of the most active coal underground instructors, who train for approximately 450 underground coal mines. In instances where deficiencies were identified, corrective action was taken immediately and follow-up monitoring was conducted to ensure deficiencies were resolved.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of information sharing between MSHA and NIOSH, the Secretaries of Labor and Health and Human Services should direct their respective agencies to work together to establish a formal memorandum of understanding to guide their coordination. In addition, the agencies should periodically review and update the memorandum, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MSHA and NIOSH signed an updated memorandum of understanding (MOU) in January 2009. The purpose of the MOU is to set forth an understanding between MSHA and NIOSH to consult, coordinate, and cooperate effectively and efficiently in carrying out their respective safety and health functions.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of information sharing between MSHA and NIOSH, the Secretaries of Labor and Health and Human Services should direct their respective agencies to work together to establish a formal memorandum of understanding to guide their coordination. In addition, the agencies should periodically review and update the memorandum, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Mine Safety and Health Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MSHA and NIOSH signed an updated memorandum of understanding (MOU) in January 2009. The purpose of the MOU is to set forth an understanding between MSHA and NIOSH to consult, coordinate, and cooperate effectively and efficiently in carrying out their respective safety and health functions.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that there is transparency in penalty determinations, the Department of Labor's Office of the Solicitor, MSHA, and the Commission should take steps to ensure that the specific rationale for all final penalty amounts, including reductions from MSHA's proposed penalties, are adequately documented.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Labor's Office of the Solicitor, and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission agreed in their agency comments that there needs to be transparency in penalty determinations and that the specific rationale need to be provided when penalties are reduced from the levels originally proposed. MSHA and the Solicitor reported that on-going training efforts for the Solicitors and Conference Litigation Reviewers cover issues such as "Proving the Suitable Penalty" and "Settlements" and documenting settlement reductions has been covered in monthly conference calls and new hire training. The Commission reports taking the following principal actions:(1) the issuance of decisions emphasizing that parties seeking approval of proposed settlements from Commission judges must clearly set forth the factual basis for each proposed settlement; (2) training for new Commission judges that emphasizes the importance of requiring parties to adequately support and document proposed penalty settlements; and (3) the promulgation of a new rule addressing settlement procedures which requires parties to submit proposed orders that fully set forth the factual basis for each settlement.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that there is transparency in penalty determinations, the Department of Labor's Office of the Solicitor, MSHA, and the Commission should take steps to ensure that the specific rationale for all final penalty amounts, including reductions from MSHA's proposed penalties, are adequately documented.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Office of the Solicitor General

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Labor's Office of the Solicitor, and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission agreed in their agency comments that there needs to be transparency in penalty determinations and that the specific rationale need to be provided when penalties are reduced from the levels originally proposed. MSHA and the Solicitor reported that on-going training efforts for the Solicitors and Conference Litigation Reviewers cover issues such as "Proving the Suitable Penalty" and "Settlements" and documenting settlement reductions has been covered in monthly conference calls and new hire training. The Commission reports taking the following actions: (1) the issuance of decisions emphasizing that parties seeking approval of proposed settlements from Commission judges must clearly set forth the factual basis for each proposed settlement; (2) training for new Commission judges that emphasizes the importance of requiring parties to adequately support and document proposed penalty settlements; and (3) the promulgation of a new rule addressing settlement procedures which requires parties to submit proposed orders that fully set forth the factual basis for each settlement.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that there is transparency in penalty determinations, the Department of Labor's Office of the Solicitor, MSHA, and the Commission should take steps to ensure that the specific rationale for all final penalty amounts, including reductions from MSHA's proposed penalties, are adequately documented.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Labor's Office of the Solicitor, and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission agreed in their agency comments that there needs to be transparency in penalty determinations and that the specific rationale need to be provided when penalties are reduced from the levels originally proposed. MSHA and the Solicitor reported that on-going training efforts for the Solicitors and Conference Litigation Reviewers cover issues such as "Proving the Suitable Penalty" and "Settlements" and documenting settlement reductions has been covered in monthly conference calls and new hire training. The Commission reports taking the following actions: (1) the issuance of decisions emphasizing that parties seeking approval of proposed settlements from Commission judges must clearly set forth the factual basis for each proposed settlement; (2) training for new Commission judges that emphasizes the importance of requiring parties to adequately support and document proposed penalty settlements; and (3) the promulgation of a new rule addressing settlement procedures which requires parties to submit proposed orders that fully set forth the factual basis for each settlement.

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