Recommendations and Actions
The Department of Labor (DOL) Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is the agency directly responsible for the nation's mine safety and health programs. MSHA has approximately 1,190 inspectors to oversee more than 15,000 mines. In 1992, MSHA conducted nearly 62,000 inspections and issued over 150,000 citations for violations of health and safety rules. During this same period, there were 100 mine-related fatalities.
Prior to 1977, MSHA was a part of the Department of the Interior (DOI), but with passage of the 1977 Mine Act, it became an agency of the DOL. However, as mandated in the 1969 Coal Act and the 1977 Mine Act, research and development (R&D) activity associated with mine safety and health remained the responsibility of DOI, or, more specifically, DOI's Bureau of Mines (BOM).
For years, therefore, MSHA--with no R&D authority or funding of its own--has had to rely on BOM to perform R&D needed to protect the safety and health of mine workers. In theory, MSHA transmits R&D requirements to BOM; BOM then conducts the necessary R&D and reports the results to MSHA. In practice, MSHA believes that BOM does not give MSHA's requirements the priority attention they warrant, and that the time spent waiting for responses to urgent requests is far too long.
For example, MSHA has waited since 1991 for a response to its R&D request for a continuous monitoring device that will enable MSHA to enforce rules limiting worker exposure to respirable coal mine dust. Because of BOM's delay in responding, MSHA does not expect to see practical applications of the monitoring device for at least three to five years.
MSHA made the request to BOM based upon the recommendation of its Respirable Dust Task Force, after an investigation started in 1989 revealed that some employers tamper with the dust samples MSHA uses to test exposure levels. MSHA considered the need for a continuous monitoring device to be urgent. Respirable coal mine dust is the cause of black lung disease--a severely debilitating disease that results in the payment of nearly $1.4 billion annually in disability benefits alone. MSHA has determined that the level of tampering could compromise its ability to ensure miner safety. As of April 4, 1991, MSHA had issued 4,700 citations to approximately 500 coal mine operators for tampering with samples. By July 1993, agency investigations into sample tampering had led to more than $7 million in civil penalties and 118 criminal convictions.
BOM's lack of responsiveness may rest in the fact that the Bureau is oriented toward long-term research while MSHA needs fast turn-around solutions to urgent health and safety problems. Timely solutions are critical to the lives and well-being of miners. MSHA needs to be able to determine the best source of technical assistance for specific problems. In some circumstances, existing technology could provide the basis for a practical solution. MSHA should have access to experts in such technology. Therefore, the way to assure the workers in this industry that they will be safe in the workplace is to grant MSHA the authority to conduct its own R&D.
The Mine Safety and Health Act should be amended to grant MSHA the authority and funding to procure the services and products needed to maintain a state-of-the-art mine safety program.
This would require changing the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 and Public Law 91-173 (as amended by Public Law 95-164), which requires MSHA to process acquisition of new and improved technology through BOM. Funds should be shifted from BOM for this purpose. When the recommendation is implemented, BOM will remain a source of advice, expertise, and long-range research; however, the existing forced source dependency relationship will be eliminated.
This recommendation would improve the effectiveness of MSHA by increasing its authority and control over the research and development of necessary state-of-the-art instruments and devices. Removing the DOI/BOM layer from the current process will eliminate excessive time delays, and increase MSHA's ability to address mine safety and health issues promptly. This is an issue of empowerment that will shift necessary capabilities, controls, and resources to MSHA, the organization that has the ultimate responsibility for the nation's mine safety and health.
MSHA estimates that DOI processes $3.5 to $4 million annually in applied R&D requests. These funds will be shifted from DOI/BOM to DOL/MSHA. Additionally, but of lesser consequence, are the administrative costs and time savings that will be derived from eliminating the dependency on DOI and streamlining the acquisition process.
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