MSHA renews its focus on health

By and |  May 17, 2019
MSHA is intensifying its approach to workplace health. Photo by Joe McCarthy.

MSHA is intensifying its approach to workplace health. Photo by Joe McCarthy.

When people talk about safety and health at mines, they often use the shorthand term “mine safety” – leaving out “health.”

Usually when the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) does an inspection, the agency’s safety standards are the prime, if not the sole, focus. Inspections for health hazards, meanwhile, tend to be only sometimes included.

Mine operators, however, make significant efforts to ensure miners have a healthy workplace. Now, MSHA is increasing its focus on health at mines.

MSHA leadership is informing stakeholders that compliance with the agency’s health standards will be a renewed focus of inspections. The Trump administration’s budget proposal to Congress requests a $1.4 million increase for MSHA enforcement, stating that the agency will conduct inspections targeting MSHA’s health standards at up to 20 percent of all metal/nonmetal mines in fiscal year 2020.

Here are some tips to help you prepare for a health inspection at your mine site:

Review exposure monitoring programs. Monitoring for possible exposure to health hazards is a central feature in MSHA’s health standards. The compliance challenge with exposure monitoring boils down to two essential questions: How often should we be monitoring? And what types of exposures should we be looking for?

The standards do not give much guidance on how or how often to do this monitoring. The agency’s air contaminant standards require “dust, gas, mist and fume surveys” to be conducted “as frequently as necessary to determine the adequacy of control measures.”

Similarly, MSHA’s noise standard requires a “system of monitoring” to assess each miner’s exposure “sufficiently to determine continuing compliance.” Periodically review your monitoring program to ensure it is designed and being carried out in a manner that can reasonably detect potential exposures.

Also, consider this: Have changes occurred in equipment, work practices or working areas that may affect exposure? Are there new possible contaminants in any work areas? If so, adjust your monitoring program accordingly.

Implement control measures in response to monitoring results. The only thing worse, from a legal perspective, than insufficient exposure monitoring is not responding appropriately to the monitoring results obtained. If potential exposures are found, you must take appropriate action to protect miners.

If control measures take time to implement, put in place interim protections, such as respiratory protection or temporary administrative controls, to ensure proper protection in the meantime.

Ensure appropriate PPE is used. Make sure personal protective equipment (PPE) appropriate for the potential exposures is in good condition, readily available and that miners are trained to use it. For specific PPE required for only certain locations, consider having PPE stored where it will be accessible and convenient to use.

Check on required records. MSHA’s health standards contain extensive recordkeeping requirements. This is more than simply an administrative task.

In addition to ensuring compliance with the recordkeeping rules, proper records serve as evidence of compliance with their related rules, such as proving that training was done or that there was no reported hearing loss. The mine must produce these records for inspectors upon request.

Be prepared to do sampling during MSHA inspections. It is a good idea for the mine operators to conduct their own health exposure sampling alongside any such activity done by MSHA. In the event MSHA’s sample results are erroneous, the mine operator’s sample results could be important evidence in contesting a citation.

Be sure to have available sufficient and calibrated dosimeters and other sampling equipment so you are ready to collect your own evidence during any MSHA health inspection. Also, keep a record of how the inspector collected samples.

Be alert for issues with hazard communication requirements. It can be difficult to stay on top of compliance with MSHA’s extensive hazcom standards. Periodic surveys or audits can help detect new chemical hazards at the mine that must be addressed under the standard’s requirements. Also look for issues with container labeling, signage and PPE, and ensure safety data sheets and hazard training are up to date.

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

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