Five MSHA standards to watch out for

By and |  September 20, 2023
Margo Lopez headshot 2022 Ogletree Deakins




Many Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) safety standards are front and center for operators because they deal with them daily.

Some standards are so familiar that they can simply be referred to by their section number or their shorthand name. In these cases, mine operators and miners know what you’re talking about (i.e., 56.18002 workplace exams; 56.20003 housekeeping; 56.14107 guarding; 56.14100 safety defects).

These standards are fairly clear in writing and well understood, although operators may, at times, rightly take issue with MSHA claiming a given condition is a violation.

There are yet other standards that may not be this familiar, but MSHA cites them often enough that operators should keep them on their radar. We may think we understand these standards, but MSHA can apply them in surprising ways. Here are a few operators should watch out for.

Five to watch

1.Machinery, Equipment, and Tools – 30 C.F.R. § 56.14205. This standard is not clearly written and can take operators unawares. It states: “Machinery, equipment, and tools shall not be used beyond the design capacity intended by the manufacturer where such use may create a hazard to persons.”

On its face, the standard appears to be focused on equipment capacity, such as lifting capacity or flow volume. But we regularly see MSHA cite this standard whenever an inspector thinks a piece of equipment or tool is used in a way that the manufacturer may not have intended and that has a potential to create a hazard.

To counter this impression, operators might consider providing the inspector with equipment specifications, the operating manual, equipment marketing and training materials – and any other third-party information to show that the current use is consistent with the equipment or tool’s design. Also, showing that there is no hazard should eliminate the possibility of a violation.

2. Eye Wash Stations – 30 C.F.R. § 56.15001. This standard gives scant meaningful guidance for an inspector to use in assessing whether an eye wash station is located where it needs to be for compliance.

Operators will want to ensure that eye wash stations are readily accessible to miners in locations where they may need to flush out eyes in an emergency. This is easy to overlook when work activities in a given location might evolve. Operators will want to consider adding or changing the location of eye wash stations as needed.

Also, be prepared to point out to inspectors where alternate facilities are located, as well as the nature of any potential exposure to eye-related hazards in the affected area.

3. Berms on Ramps – 30 C.F.R. § 56.9300. By its express language, this standard applies only to “roadways” where a drop-off exists. Still, MSHA tends to interpret “roadways” broadly and has applied this standard to all sorts of elevated ramps – no matter how short the ramp or how slowly the equipment operates on it.

Operators will want to keep even short ramps – such as at entrances to storehouses – in mind when considering adequacy of berms and guardrails at sites.

4. Correction of Dangerous Electrical Conditions – 30 C.F.R. § 56.12030. This standard simply states: “When a potentially dangerous condition is found it shall be corrected before equipment or wiring is energized.” It is so broadly written, though, that it tends to be applied to many different types of electrical conditions.

Many of these are small and easy to miss, such as a nick in an electrical cable or a plug that separated slightly from its electrical cord. We often see damaged cables cited when they are thrown in a corner until they can be fully discarded. MSHA will cite them if they are not actually in the trash or tagged out.

5. Barricades and Warning Signs – 30 C.F.R. § 56.20011. On a quick read, this would appear to be a very broadly written standard: “Areas where health or safety hazards exist that are not immediately obvious to employees shall be barricaded, or warning signs shall be posted at all approaches.”

There are two important limitations to the application of this standard that inspectors often miss or disregard. First, it only applies where hazards are “not immediately obvious.” Any hazard that is readily observable would not be citable under this standard. Second, the standard requires only barricades or warning signs. Many inspectors will claim that both are required, but the standard only requires one or the other.

Final thoughts

Periodic refresher training on these standards, including hazard recognition, can be helpful to improve compliance and safety. When in doubt, an operator may want to ask the inspector to explain how a given condition is a violation of the standard. Armed with this information, you may then be able to more effectively demonstrate that it is not.

Bill Doran and Margo Lopez are with the national labor, employment and safety law firm Ogletree Deakins.

Featured photo: kzenon/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Related: How far does MSHA jurisdiction extend beyond mine property?

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