‘One MSHA’ growing pains

By and |  September 24, 2019
Aggregate producers are raising concerns as MSHA merges coal inspectors with the metal/nonmetal mining sector. Photo by Kevin Yanik

Building relationships with your MSHA inspector helps in the future. Photo by Kevin Yanik

For years, we have advised managers and safety personnel to get to know their Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) district managers and field office supervisors.

We told them to make their relationship with MSHA more than just an inspection transaction, and to tell agency leadership about their safety program and the efforts and resources they are devoting to the protection and welfare of miners. Essentially, managers and safety personnel should provide MSHA leadership with the same information regularly given to the inspectors who are visiting mine property.

The point of this relationship building and information sharing is not to get MSHA to look the other way when bad things happen. The point is to build an effective, professional relationship and provide context so agency personnel understand the hard work and sincerity underlying the operator’s compliance efforts.

This, in turn, can make the agency more receptive to the mitigating circumstances that often surround difficult enforcement events at the mine.

Back to square one

With that said, a lot of hard work in this regard by a number of operators over the years has just gone right out the window. These operators have received email and verbal notification that they are now under the jurisdiction of new field offices and, in some cases, new district offices.

Although, as of this writing, there has been no formal agency pronouncement or explanation, this reorganization of both field office and district lines is generally understood to be a part of the agency’s “One MSHA” initiative. Industry associations have asked the agency for a detailed description of the changes that have occurred and that are further anticipated, but to date there has been silence.

Nonetheless, it seems there might have been a more effective way to roll this out. We certainly have joined the chorus of industry voices over the years that have called for a more efficient marshaling of agency efforts to address the conditions and hazards that produce the most injuries and accidents. But does this do that?

Some operations have learned they have been redistricted in responses to informal conference requests. The letter simply directs them to the new district’s CLR and identifies the district manager. Other operations have received a more specific, reassuring note.

For instance, a surface aggregate operation in the Midwest recently received this message from a coal district manager: “We have been assigned to continue the duties of oversight of inspection activities that will be required for your properties that are under MSHA jurisdiction. First of all, your inspections will still be primarily handled by the same inspectors you have been inspected by in the past. Other than specialty inspection or investigations that may require an expertise not available in the field offices, you will only see visiting inspectors from the [coal district] on a limited basis.”

These messages raise more questions than they answer. For an operation that only has two inspections per year, what are the circumstances in which a coal inspector will visit? Has any orientation been provided to the coal district and field offices about the aggregate operations that have been dropped in their laps? Have they been plugged into the details of the operation’s production process, its violation history, or its safety program?

Some of these types of efforts have been hinted at in stakeholder discussions but, as of this writing, no overall plan has been presented.

Hello, my name is…

At this point, many operators barely know the names of their new points of contact. All aspects of this reorganization should be fully presented to stakeholders. At a minimum, district and field office meetings should be held to introduce the new organization. This would go a long way toward maintaining an adequate level of confidence in the system.

In the meantime, operators should start looking for opportunities to introduce themselves to the new team. Do not wait for a dispute over a citation to be your first contact.

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

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