Mine Safety and Health Administration
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is an agency of the United States Department of Labor which administers the provisions of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (Mine Act) to enforce compliance with mandatory safety and health standards as a means to eliminate fatal accidents, to reduce the frequency and severity of nonfatal accidents, to minimize health hazards, and to promote improved safety and health conditions in the nation's mines. MSHA carries out the mandates of the Mine Act at all mining and mineral processing operations in the United States, regardless of size, number of employees, commodity mined, or method of extraction. Currently, Richard Stickler is the head of the MSHA and is thus an Assistant Secretary of the United States Department of Labor.
MSHA is divided into several subdivisions under the office of the assistant secretary for mine safety and health. The coal mine safety and health division is divided into 11 districts covering coal mining in different portions of the United States. The metal-nonmetal mine safety and health division covers 6 regions of the United States.
In 1891, the United States Congress passed the first federal statute governing mine safety. The 1891 law was relatively modest legislation that applied only to mines in U.S. territories, and, among other things, established minimum ventilation requirements at underground coal mines and prohibited operators from employing children under 12 years of age.
After the loss of more than 1000 workers from 1907-1909 in mining disasters, such as the Monongah Mining Disaster, the Progressive Movement pushed for governmental regulations to improve working conditions in the mines. Mine operators hoped to stave off this government regulatory control by the implementation of their own safety practices. However Congress was pressured in 1910 to establish the US Bureau of Mines, an agency of the Department of Interior, to further research mine safety problems and conduct mine inspections. The Bureau did help establish some safety standards, but had little enforcement power to correct infractions. The Bureau was charged with the responsibility to conduct research and to reduce accidents in the coal mining industry, but was given no inspection authority until 1941, when Congress empowered federal inspectors to enter mines. In 1947, Congress authorized the formulation of the first code of federal regulations for mine safety.
The Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1952 provided for annual inspections in certain underground coal mines, and gave the Bureau limited enforcement authority, including power to issue violation notices and imminent danger withdrawal orders. The 1952 Act also authorized the assessment of civil penalties against mine operators for noncompliance with withdrawal orders or for refusing to give inspectors access to mine property, although no provision was made for monetary penalties for noncompliance with the safety provisions. In 1966, Congress extended coverage of the 1952 Coal Act to all underground coal mines.
The first federal statute directly regulating non-coal mines did not appear until the passage of the Federal Metal and Nonmetallic Mine Safety Act of 1966. The 1966 Act provided for the promulgation of standards, many of which were advisory, and for inspections and investigations; however, its enforcement authority was minimal.
The Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, generally referred to as the Coal Act, was more comprehensive and had more enforcement power than previous federal legislation governing the mining industry. The Coal Act included surface as well as underground coal mines within its scope, required two annual inspections of every surface coal mine and four at every underground coal mine, and dramatically increased federal enforcement powers in coal mines. The Coal Act also required monetary penalties for all violations, albeit not large, and established criminal penalties for knowing and willful violations. The safety standards for all coal mines were strengthened, and health standards were adopted. The Coal Act included specific procedures for the development of improved mandatory health and safety standards, and provided compensation for miners who were totally and permanently disabled by the progressive respiratory disease caused by the inhalation of fine coal dust, known as pneumoconiosis, or "black lung".
In 1973, the Secretary of the Interior, through administrative action, created the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration (MESA) as a new departmental agency separate from the Bureau of Mines. MESA assumed the safety and health enforcement functions formerly carried out by the Bureau to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest between the enforcement of mine safety and health standards and the Bureau's responsibilities for mineral resource development. (MESA was the predecessor organization to MSHA, prior to March 9, 1978.)
Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, the legislation which currently governs MSHA's activities. The Mine Act amended the 1969 Coal Act in a number of significant ways, and consolidated all federal health and safety regulations of the mining industry, coal as well as non-coal mining, under a single statutory scheme. The Mine Act strengthened and expanded the rights of miners, and enhanced the protection of miners from retaliation for exercising such rights. Mining fatalities dropped sharply under the Mine Act from 272 in 1977 to 22 year to date (July 17, 2007). The Mine Act also transferred responsibility for carrying out its mandates from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Labor, and named the new agency the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Additionally, the Mine Act established the independent Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission to provide for independent review of the majority of MSHA's enforcement actions.
Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977
Mining is regulated under the federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 by MSHA, which employs nearly one safety inspector for every four coal mines. Underground coal mines are thoroughly inspected at least four times annually by MSHA inspectors. In addition, miners can report violations, and request additional inspections. Miners with such concerns for their work safety cannot be penalized with any threat to the loss of employment.
Immediately reportable accidents and injuries are:
- A death of an individual at a mine;
- An injury to an individual at a mine which has a reasonable potential to cause death;
- An entrapment of an individual for more than thirty minutes;
- An unplanned inundation of a mine by a liquid or gas;
- An unplanned ignition or explosion of gas or dust;
- An unplanned mine fire not extinguished within 30 minutes of discovery;
- An unplanned ignition or explosion of a blasting agent or an explosive;
- An unplanned roof fall at or above the anchorage zone in active workings where roof bolts are in use; or, an unplanned roof or rib fall in active workings that impairs ventilation or impedes passage;
- A coal or rock outburst that causes withdrawal of miners or which disrupts regular mining activity for more than one hour;
- An unstable condition at an impoundment, refuse pile, or culm bank which requires emergency action in order to prevent failure, or which causes individuals to evacuate an area; or, failure of an impoundment, refuse pile or culm bank;
- Damage to hoisting equipment in a shaft or slope which endangers an individual or which interferes with use of the equipment for more than thirty minutes; and
- An event at a mine which causes death or bodily injury to an individual not at the mine at the time the event occurs.
Additionally, the Mine Safety and Health Act authorizes the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop recommendations for mine health standards for the Mine Safety and Health Administration; administer a medical surveillance program for miners, including chest X-rays to detect pneumoconiosos (black lung disease) in coal miners; conduct on-site investigations in mines; and test and certify personal protective equipment and hazard-measurement instruments.
Statistical analyses performed by the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) show that between 1990 and 2004, the industry cut the rate of injuries (a measure comparing the rate of incidents to overall number of employees or hours worked) by more than half and fatalities by two-thirds following three prior decades of steady improvement.
MSHA and the Gingrich Congress
When Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995, among their government streamlining proposals was to eliminate MSHA. Mine safety duties would be given instead to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, weakening the greater protections federal law gives to miners. According to coal journalist Ken Ward Jr.: "[T]op Labor Department officials spent years fighting the change. They eventually won, but the damage to their agenda — including black lung reforms — was significant." Efforts to increase coal dust regulations and improve monitoring have since been consistently defeated, resulting in cases of black lung among American coal miners doubling from 2000 to 2012.
MSHA and George W. Bush
The Martin County Sludge Spill occurred after midnight on October 11, 2000 when the bottom of a coal sludge impoundment owned by Massey Energy in Martin County, Kentucky, broke into an abandoned underground mine below. The slurry came out of the mine openings, sending an estimated 306 million gallons (1.16 billion liters) of sludge down two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. By morning, Wolf Creek was oozing with the black waste; on Coldwater Fork, a ten-foot (3 m) wide stream became a 100-yard (91 m) expanse of thick sludge. Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who is also a board member of the US Chamber of Commerce, has spent millions of dollars to support judicial and state political campaigns, including $3M to buy a West Virginia state Supreme Court justice. Nearly another $400,000 was disbursed by Massey's employees, including Blankenship.
Jack Spadaro, then the head of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, investigated the spill and reported negligence on the part of Martin County Coal, a subsidiary of coal giant Massey Energy, and lax enforcement by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. According to Spadaro, the slurry pond had a spill in 1994 and Massey knew another break was nearly inevitable. Spadaro’s former boss at Mine Safety, Davitt McAteer, defended Spadaro, telling 60 Minutes that major coal sludge fatalities are avoided only "by the grace of God," and that officials expected a report that recommended violations, fines, and possible criminal charges. After Bush took office McAteer was replaced. Spadaro was accused of abusing his authority, and was reassigned to a Pittsburgh office four hours from his home. He resigned.
During his terms, former President George W. Bush cut funding for mine safety enforcement by $15 million and replaced MSHA officials, such as Davitt McAteer, with representatives of corporate interests. In 2002, Bush named former Massey Energy official Stanley Suboleski to the MSHA review commission that decides all legal matters under the Federal Mine Act. David Lauriski, the former head of MSHA, spent 30 years as an executive in the mining industry before being tapped to head the agency, and resigned in 2005 to work for a mine-industry consulting company. The next head of MSHA Richard Stickler, appointed by Bush in September 2006, was a former manager of Beth Energy mines. The Bush administration also cut 170 positions from MSHA.
In 2010, Jeff Duncan was made MSHA Acting Chief of Staff. Duncan is the one who put Spadaro on administrative leave while Spadaro was looking into criminal negligence involving Massey in the Martin County sludge spill.
In 2006, federal regulators moved to overhaul mine safety laws for the first time in over three decades with Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006, also known as the MINER Act. The Act was partly in response to the deaths of 19 miners in a series of accidents in West Virginia and Kentucky, including the Aracoma mine that brought criminal charges against a subsidiary of Massey.
Defeat of the S-MINER Act
In June of 2007, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee that oversees the MSHA, introduced the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER) Act, which would have supplemented existing mining provisions in the Federal Mine Act to require: "(1) emergency response plans to incorporate new technology; (2) the Secretary of Labor to require the installation of rescue chambers in underground coal mines; and (3) accident response plans to provide for the maintenance of refuges." The House Committee on Education and Labor issued a report stating: "The S-MINER Act aims to prevent disasters and, in cases where disasters do occur, to improve emergency response. It also aims to reduce long-term health risks facing miners, such as black lung." Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) explained the bill was necessary because the 2006 MINER Act provisions had not been effectively enforced: "So far, I am concerned that the slow pace of reform is leaving America's miners at risk. We've made progress. But [the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA)] has not moved aggressively to implement all of the provisions of the MINER Act."
Two months after introduction of the bill, six miners died in the Crandall Canyon mining disaster in Utah. Regardless, the mining industry continued to oppose the bill. Vice President for Safety, Health and Human Resources of the National Mining Association, which had initially supported the reforms, testified before the committee that the "additional layers of statutory requirements at this time will undermine the progress that has been made on miner training and other vital objectives of the act. It is premature to consider imposing further legislation before the full impact of the original MINER Act can be comprehensively evaluated." Further opposition cited concerns about energy independence and job losses, such as Congressman Don Young of Alaska who argued, "If this bill was to become law, mines will be shut down. They will be shut down." The Bush Administration also strongly opposed the bill, claiming that "the regulatory mandates in the S-MINER bill would weaken several existing regulations and overturn regulatory processes that were required by the MINER Act and are ongoing."
The House passed the S-MINER Act in January 2008 but the bill died in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, chaired by Sen. Murray, met to consider the bill and only three members were present for the hearing. No further action was taken on the bill. For the House vote, 25 House Democrats and nearly all House Republicans voted against the bill. Analysis by maplight, based upon the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets Open Data found that, on average, House opponents received 103 percent more money from mining interests than House members voting Yes (an average of $12,526 to each member voting No, $6,174 to each voting Yes), while Democrats voting No received 197 percent more money from mining interests than their colleagues voting Yes (an average of $16,314 to each Democrat voting No, $5,489 to each voting Yes). Members of the Senate HELP Committee received 122 percent more from the mining interests than from the unions.
Contributions (2003-2008) from Interest Groups that Supported and Opposed the S-MINER Act to Members of the Senate HELP Committee in the 110th Congress:
|Senate HELP Committee Member||Party||State||State Rank in Mining Production||$ From Supporting Interest Groups||$ From Opposing Interest Groups|
Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster
On April 5, 2010, an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia killed 29 miners, with two hospitalized. The mine had a history of MSHA safety violations, including as recently as 2010 for failing to control coal dust; improperly planning to ventilate the mine of dust and the combustible gas methane; inadequate protection from roof falls; failing to maintain proper escapeways; and allowing the accumulation of combustible materials.
Despite the history of MSHA violations at the mine, a "talking points" memo circulated by MSHA during the week of the disaster stated that, "MSHA does not have the authority to permanently close or shut down a mine based upon a set number of violations, or any other criteria."
June 2010 Labor Department Report on MSHA Practices
After the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, California Democrat and chairman of the House Labor Committee George Miller said he planned to introduce changes to mine health and safety laws. Miller and other lawmakers sought an investigation into MSHA after the April 2010 disclosure that a computer error prevented MSHA from notifying Massey that the Upper Big Branch mine may be placed under a so-called “pattern of violations” enforcement. On June 23, 2010, the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General issued a report finding that the U.S. mine safety regulator has failed to subject mines with repeated violations to the “enhanced oversight” required when an operator shows disregard for miner health. The report noted that MSHA in 2009 restricted the list of mines with recurring violations because of resource limits, removing 10 for reasons that do not appear to be appropriate. The department asked MSHA to immediately re-evaluate the 10 mines removed from the 2009 list. Miller said the report raises questions about adequate funding for MSHA’s regional offices to enforce the law.
On June 23, 2010, Massey sued MSHA over requirements for ventilation at the West Virginia Upper Big Branch Mine mine. The company said MSHA had rejected a system that would have aided workers, and instead forced installation of a complex ventilation system in an area where miners were working when the explosion occurred.
Sep. 27, 2010: Massey challenge to MSHA dismissed
On September 27, 2010, administrative law judge ALJ Margaret A. Miller with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission ruled in favor of the MSHA in a legal challenge filed in June 2010 by Massey Energy’s Performance Coal. The company had challenged MSHA’s protocol guidelines in the underground accident investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine, in which the agency prohibited Massey Energy investigators from using cameras, collecting evidence, mapping, and conducting sampling. In her ruling, Miller held that MSHA did not abuse its discretion in adopting the protocols and that the protocols “are rationally connected to safely conducting the accident investigation.” MSHA, along with West Virginia’s Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training, had outlined specific protocols in June to ensure preservation of evidence. The agency said it considered input from all entities with an interest in the investigation, including Performance Coal, and that it modified those protocols to accommodate a number of the company’s requests.
June 2010: Democrats Draft Measure to Tighten Coal-Mine Safety
In June 2010, Democrats in Congress began drafting legislation that would make it easier to shut mines with repeated safety violations, such as the Massey Energy coal mine, where 29 miners died in an April explosion. Regulators are seeking to change a system in which Massey and other mining companies appeal safety violations to delay or avoid safety enforcement actions. The bill would boost penalties for some types of violations and add protections for whistleblowers who report safety lapses, as the Massey Upper Big Branch Mine mine had been cited for deficiencies in the ventilation system and for buildups of combustible coal dust before the explosion. The measure would expand subpoena powers of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and broaden pay protections for miners who are out of work when violations lead to a mine being shut. The bill would also revamp the process for declaring that a mine had a pattern of violations, which subject the operator to stepped-up enforcement. It would also require mine operators to pay penalties in a timely manner, and give MSHA the power to subpoena documents and testimony. Under the proposed legislation, the mine-safety agency could seek a court order to close a mine when there is a continuing threat to the health and safety of miners. The agency could also require more training of miners in unsafe mines.
Senate Republicans said they were disappointed Democrats drafted a measure without bipartisan support and said achieving a consensus will be difficult. They faulted the proposal for adding power to agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
August 2010: MSHA issues guidelines for industry compliance with ventilation regulations
On August 16, 2010, the MSHS announced that "as a result of troubling testimony heard in a recent field hearing regarding the explosion of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine", the agency was releasing four new program information bulletins (PIBs) pertaining to ventilation issues in underground coal mines, "to remind mine operators, miners' representatives, MSHA enforcement personnel, and other interested parties about mandatory coal mine safety standards relative to inadequate ventilation, intentional changes in the mine's ventilation system, maintaining face ventilation control devices, and maintaining methane monitors in permissible and proper operating condition for mining equipment."
According to MSHA, providing adequate ventilation in an underground mine is the principal means of ensuring that flammable, explosive, noxious and harmful gases, dusts, smoke, and fumes are continuously diluted, rendered harmless, and carried away: "Insufficient air quantity allows methane and dust to accumulate, potentially resulting in a mine fire or explosion. Dust accumulations can also cause miners to be exposed to harmful levels of respirable dust, which can lead to black lung." The guidance covers intentional changes to a mine's ventilation system and working face ventilation controls, reinforces the maintenance of methane monitors, and reiterates the prohibition on tampering with methane monitors.
September 21, 2010: New compliance rules on coal dust issued
On September 21, 2010, MSHA director Joe Main announced plans to require underground mines to do more to control explosive coal dust under an emergency rule. The announcement came amid mounting evidence that coal dust played a role in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in April. The change will raise to 80 percent the amount of pulverized stone or other inert material mines use to dilute coal dust in air intake tunnels, the same amount already required in return tunnels. Currently intakes need just 65 percent. Main says MSHA's change is based on federal research that shows decreasing the amount of coal dust in air intakes can prevent explosions.
The Charleston Gazette has contacted the MSHA for records of its actions after two significant “methane outbursts” at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in 2003 and 2004. Federal and state investigators have been looking at those incidents as part of their probe of the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch. On March 10, 2011, MSHA sent a two-page letter, in which the agency mostly denied the FOIA request — refusing to release roughly two-thirds of the records concerning those incidents. MSHA did, however, provide 149 pages of records mostly consisting of citations — and 13 pages consisting of the reports on the 2003 and 2004 incidents that were already obtained from other sources — but no records that explain what, if any, follow up was done by either Massey or MSHA to ensure no repeats of the methane incidents. MSHA withheld 272 pages of records, citing Exemption 7 of the federal Freedom of Information Act, meant to protect records that, if released, might interfere with ongoing law enforcement proceedings.
November 2010: Injunction Against Massey for Freedom Mine Violations
In November 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court against Massey Energy for its perpetual mine violations at its Freedom Mine No. 1 in Pike County, Kentucky. The action, which is the toughest enforcement action available to federal regulators, would shut down the mine until the company addresses safety hazards and demonstrates it can operate the mine safely. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Kentucky, cited nearly 2,000 safety violations since mid-2008, including a deadly mine explosion in early 2010. The suit said that six roof falls occurred at the mine since Aug. 11, 2010.
The Freedom Mine employs about 130 miners and was cited for safety violations more than 700 times in 2010 alone.
On December 1, 2010, Massey Energy said it had idled the Freedom Mine amid increased regulatory scrutiny. The Freedom Mine No. 1 is one of three Massey-operated mines the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration had listed as having a pattern of safety violations, opening them up to greater oversight and potential closure if problems aren't fixed. The other two mines listed by MSHA as having a pattern of safety violations were Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine and the Ruby Energy Mine, also in West Virginia.
In January 2011, the Labor Department made an agreement with Massey that the Freedom mine's most senior managers must be directly involved in safety procedures and are personally responsible for violations. Shutdowns and fixes are to be immediate when unsafe conditions are spotted.
January 2011: MSHA proposes changes to regulation for pattern of violations
In January 2011, the MSHA submitted proposed changes to the Agency’s existing regulation for pattern of violations (POV): "MSHA has determined that the existing regulation does not adequately achieve the intent of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (Mine Act) that the POV provision be used to address operators who have demonstrated a disregard for the safety and health of miners. Congress included the POV provision in the Mine Act so that operators would manage safety and health conditions at mines and find and fix the root causes of significant and substantial (S&S) violations to protect the safety and health of miners. The proposal would simplify the existing POV criteria, improve consistency in applying the POV criteria, and more adequately achieve the statutory intent. It would also encourage chronic violators to comply with the Mine Act and MSHA’s safety and health standards" (p. 1).
According to journalist Ken Ward Jr., a comparison of the proposal with MSHA’s existing part 104 rules indicates three major changes:
- Do away with the “warning letter” operators now receive indicating that have a “potential pattern of violations” and move directly to issuing pattern notices to operators.
- Require MSHA to conduct POV screenings twice a year. Current rules require that screening only once per year.
- Eliminate the requirement that MSHA consider only violations that have become final orders of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission after any company appeals.
April 2011: MSHA issues pattern of violations to two mines
On April 12, 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration announced that it had issued a notice of a pattern of violations to two coal mining operations under Section 104(e) of the federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977: Bledsoe Coal Corp.’s Abner Branch Rider Mine in Leslie County, Ky., and The New West Virginia Mining Co.’s Apache Mine in McDowell County, W.Va.
Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)
1100 Wilson Boulevard, 21st Floor
Arlington, VA 22209-3939
Phone: (202) 693-9400
Fax-on-demand: (202) 693-9401
Articles & resources
- Coal mining accidents
- Monongah Mining Disaster
- Health effects of coal
- Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster
- Monongah Mining Disaster
- Aracoma Alma Mine accident
- Sago Mine Disaster
- Longwall mining
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- "MSHA Wins Ruling in Massey Energy Case" Rock Products, Sep. 27, 2010.
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