MSHA’s 2019 priorities

By |  November 19, 2018
MSHA's Ed Elliott visited the OAIMA Annual Meeting & Trade Show in Columbus, Ohio.

MSHA’s Ed Elliott visited the OAIMA Annual Meeting & Trade Show in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Kevin Yanik.

The Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) established several initiatives in its first year under Assistant Secretary David Zatezalo, and the agency plans to keep its eye on these in 2019 while putting an eye toward the future.

Ed Elliott, a senior advisor to the assistant secretary who spent nearly 30 years in the aggregate industry, highlighted a number of MSHA’s priorities at the Ohio Aggregates & Industrial Minerals Association‘s (OAIMA) Annual Meeting & Trade Show in Columbus, Ohio. Here are six priorities Elliott addressed that affect aggregate producers.

1. Fulfilling the requirements of the Mine Act. Under Zatezalo, MSHA plans to carry this mission out in cooperation with the mining industry.

“We’re trying to reach out to get operators more involved and engaged in what we’re trying to do,” says Elliott, who served Rogers Group as director of safety and health before joining MSHA. “There are opportunities to get engaged in safety.”

Emerging technologies present opportunities to create safer work environments, Elliott adds. Along this line, MSHA would like producers to share their safety approaches with cutting-edge tech so others can adopt more effective best practices.

“We’re trying to seek input from stakeholders,” Elliott says. “There was an RFI (request for information) that came out a few months ago, and we had hearings around the country to get information about powered haulage and what people are doing.”

2. Holding mine operators accountable when it comes to paying penalty assessments. MSHA announced plans in March 2018 to strengthen the Scofflaw Program, an initiative aimed at collecting unpaid fines from delinquent mine operators. Following the announcement, MSHA delivered 30-day demand letters to an initial list of delinquent mine operators, providing them with an opportunity to set up a payment plan while making clear the consequence of non-payment.

In October, MSHA revealed it had recovered $5.2 million in unpaid fines. But that total represents just a fraction of the dollars MSHA had not collected over the years.

In fact, when Elliott joined the agency in October 2017, he was informed mine operators owed the federal government about $60 million in penalty assessments.

“From the standpoint of business, I have no sympathy for those people [operators] because what they’re doing is cheating everybody else,” Elliott says. “Those of you who pay your bills are honest and do the right thing.”

One metal/nonmetal mine operator owed more than $600,000 to the government, Elliott says, yet this particular operator never paid a single fine.

According to MSHA, a robust Scofflaw Program is critical to protect the health and safety of miners. Failure to pay penalties is unfair to both miners who deserve safe workplaces, as well as operators who follow the rules.

“We made a firm commitment to where we are reaching out and giving those operators the opportunity to pay those fines and pay the government,” Elliott says.

When operators don’t pay fines, they receive a letter stating they have 30 days to respond and set up a payment plan. MSHA has a course of action in place for when operators fail to respond.

“We’ll go out and issue a citation,” Elliott says. “[We] give them 30 days to respond to that. If they don’t respond to that, we go out and write a withdrawal order and shut them down.”

3. Blurring the line between coal and metal/nonmetal. Through the “One MSHA” initiative, Zatezalo has the agency on a path to operate as a single mine safety organization – not one in which some inspectors focus on coal while others are dedicated to metal/nonmetal.

“We’re trying to move in that direction,” Elliott says.

With about 1,100 coal mines operating in the United States and nearly 12,000 metal/nonmetal mines across the nation, it makes sense to consolidate inspectors under one umbrella.

“This is to make the agency more efficient,” Elliott says. “It was unbelievable the amount of travel that some metal/nonmetal inspectors were having to make to go to a mine. They might have to travel five or six hours one way to do an inspection while there might be a coal office that’s 30 minutes away. It just didn’t make any sense from a good business perspective.”

According to MSHA, 90 mines have already transitioned from one field office’s jurisdiction to another through the “One MSHA” initiative.

“Those inspectors have had additional training to understand the differences in the regulations,” Elliott says.

4. Intensifying the focus on the “health” aspect of mine safety and health. This will become a greater area of emphasis for the agency in the years to come.

In Columbus, one OAIMA meeting attendee asked Elliott if he expects MSHA to adopt the Occupational Safety & Health Administration standard on respirable crystalline silica.

“Not at this time,” Elliott responded.

Still, Elliott advises operators to periodically sample their operations and take action any time the silica exposure is more than half of the permissible exposure limit.

“[The] people cleaning the plant – don’t work around the plant while it’s running,” Elliott says. “Move the crusher operator away from the crusher. There are things that can be done that would be simple.

“You don’t want silicosis to become the metal/nonmetal industry’s black lung,” he adds. “The important part is doing something about it before it gets to that point.”

Diesel particulate matter is one exposure area that underground mine operators in the metal/nonmetal industry are currently responsible for under the law.

“You need to be doing sampling,” Elliott says.

Operators should also take noise exposure seriously.

“Check to see where your employees are exposed to elevated levels of noise that can cause harm to their health,” Elliott says.

MSHA committed about $250,000 to additional sampling equipment for the metal/nonmetal industry at the end of its last fiscal year, he adds. The agency is actively exploring opportunities to conduct sampling at metal/nonmetal mines.

“Health is going to be a bigger issue,” he says.

5. Preventing powered haulage accidents. Half of the 28 mining fatalities that occurred in 2017 involved powered haulage equipment, and more than half of this year’s fatalities can be sourced back to this sort of equipment, as well.

These accidents happen for various reasons – when large vehicles hit small vehicles; when someone neglects to wear a seat belt; with belt conveyors and their components. MSHA launched a powered haulage safety initiative this year to educate operators about the dangers in this area, and the agency will continue to focus on powered haulage safety in the new year.

One recent death falls into the powered haulage category. According to Elliott, the accident took place in an underground metal mine in Nevada where a loader operator unfortunately made a fatal mistake.

“It happened early in the morning,” Elliott says. “He got out of the loader, walked to the face to check it. It was on a slight incline. When he turned around, the loader came and rode over the top of him.”

The loader operator did not put the bucket down or set the parking brake, Elliott adds.

“[It’s] the most simple things,” he says.

Another 2018 fatality involving powered haulage equipment weighs on Elliott’s mind.

“We had a fatality in northern Michigan where a person – a supervisor –[was] working and drove into the pit,” Elliott says. “We haven’t been able to determine [it] at this point, [but] a 100-ton haul truck with material ran over the top of her and killed her.”

The victim was a single parent with adolescent children, he adds.

“Most of these are so easy to prevent,” Elliott says. “That’s one of the reasons we’re looking at this powered haulage initiative to bring more awareness to people in the industry.”

6. Making sure fire suppression systems on vehicles are available and working properly. A series of 2018 incidents drew MSHA to a problem in this area.

In September, for example, a miner was burned when a fire broke out on the rock truck he was operating. According to MSHA, the miner was hauling spoil material from the pit to the dump site at the time of the accident. As he was positioning the truck at the dump site, a bulldozer operator saw a fire near the engine compartment and operator’s cab.

The bulldozer operator radioed the miner operating the truck. After stopping the truck, the miner evacuated but received burns as he traveled down the stairs, which are beside the engine compartment. The miner was transported to a hospital and a burn center for treatment, but he died from his injuries five days after the accident.

MSHA checked the manually-activated fire suppression system during the investigation. Based on statements made during the investigation, the fire suppression system did not function when activated. A properly functioning system may have saved the miner’s life, MSHA says.

About two weeks after this accident, MSHA reports that two additional fires occurred. A fire occurred at the same mine on another rock truck of the same make and model. No one was injured, but again, based on statements, the manually-activated fire suppression system did not function when activated.

A non-injury fire also occurred on a hydraulic shovel. The automatic fire suppression system activated, but it did not extinguish the fire.

MSHA reminds mine operators that it is their responsibility to ensure adequate and effective fire protection equipment is provided. This includes fire suppression systems. It is also the responsibility of mine operators and miners to make sure fire hazards on surface vehicles are adequately eliminated and/or mitigated.

“Make sure you check the fire suppression systems,” Elliott says. “Make sure they are installed properly.”

MSHA personnel intend to look at fire suppression systems on these types of surface mining vehicles moving forward. They will check critical portions of fire suppression systems and discuss the key requirements of proper installation and maintenance of these systems.

In addition, MSHA wants operators to contact manufacturers when necessary and check their fire suppression systems to ensure they will operate in case of a fire. The agency also encourages manufacturers of surface vehicles, as well as mine operators, to develop and install evacuation methods that allow miners to stay away from areas of the vehicle where fires have historically started. Such areas include the engine and battery compartments and hydraulic hoses.

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is the editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry magazine. Yanik can be reached at 216-706-3724 or kyanik@northcoastmedia.net.

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