Mine Safety:

MSHA's and Other Federal Agencies' Improved Oversight Could Enhance Safety for Coal Miners

GAO-07-855T: 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. In two reports released today, 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, MSHA's coal mine inspector recruiting efforts, and how civil penalties are assessed.

Underground coal mine operators reported facing significant challenges in 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 reported challenges such as limited access to special training facilities and the cost of providing such training. In addition, mine operators reported that they anticipate challenges in implementing new mine rescue team requirements, such as conducting training annually at each mine the rescue team services. MSHA approves mine operators' training plans and inspects their training records, but its oversight of miner training is hampered by several factors. For example, MSHA 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 they do not have a current memorandum of understanding to guide their coordination efforts. As a result, 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 MSHA and NIOSH engineers and scientists and other challenges both agencies face. In 2004, MSHA began a new process for hiring mine inspectors, which has led to a number of improvements, such as being able to identify applicants who possess the basic skills needed to be successful inspectors and decreasing the time it takes to hire new inspectors. However, MSHA's human capital plan does not include a strategic approach for addressing the large number of retirements expected in the next 5 years. 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 often reduced significantly. MSHA uses a standard formula to propose penalties, but the other entities involved in the appeals process use considerable discretion in deciding on the final penalty amount. Approximately 6 percent of the 506,707 penalties proposed by MSHA between 1996 and 2006 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 level of gravity of the violation initially cited by MSHA or the degree of the mine operator's negligence initially cited.

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