On February 6, 2018, during a session entitled “Reviewing the Policies and Priorities of the Mine Safety and Health Administration,” Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health David G. Zatezalo testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.
The oversight hearing was held to review the work and direction of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The last time the subcommittee heard testimony from MSHA was more than two years ago. Chairman Bradley R. Byrne (R-AL), Ranking Member Mark A. Takano (D-CA), and other members of the subcommittee asked questions following opening remarks from Assistant Secretary Zatezalo.
Zatezalo began by praising the ideal of collaboration between the agency and the regulated community, and by encouraging the subcommittee to see safety as he does: as a nonpartisan issue. Mr. Zatezalo informed the subcommittee of his intention to visit all 15 district offices in order to examine and familiarize himself with the agency.
Zatezalo then provided the subcommittee with a review of MSHA statistics from 2017. He reported that in 2017 MSHA fulfilled its enforcement mandate by issuing 105,000 citation/orders in 42,219 inspections. He reported that the industry suffered 28 fatalities, the second-lowest number of fatalities ever recorded. It was only the third year in which fewer than 30 fatalities were recorded.
Going forward, Zatezalo reported that the agency plans to focus on improving safety in the area of powered haulage. Forty-three percent of all mine fatalities in 2017 were associated with powered haulage. He also indicated that a key focus of the agency would be to ensure that MSHA inspectors and technical personnel are medically fit for duty. The agency completed 224 medical exams of personnel in response to questions on medical fitness. Zatezalo also emphasized his desire for offering increased compliance assistance to small mines, including providing inspectors to spend additional time with new miners, which he defined as those with less than one year of experience.
He further reported that in 2018 the agency will roll out technological advancements to make inspectors more efficient. Specifically, inspectors will be issued new “rugged tablets” so that they have real-time access to mine data, including mine-specific plans, mine statistics, and other information. He suggested that the tablets will enable inspectors to communicate findings more quickly.
Questions from the subcommittee members included concerns regarding enforcement inconsistency throughout districts, agency receptiveness to new technology, agency efforts to reduce black lung disease, and the status of pattern-of-violations (POV) rule enforcement.
Zatezalo was largely noncommittal on a number of these issues, as he is still learning the agency. Some points of particular interest from his responses included his insistence that the 2014 respirable dust standard would not be abandoned or revised. He declined to state whether he believes POV enforcement is adequate as currently stated in the law, but he did concede that he believed the rule had acted as a deterrent. When asked about crystalline silica rulemaking for MSHA to match the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) exposure limit of 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter, Zatezalo stated that OSHA and MSHA regulate different communities and that what is suitable for one regulated community may not be suitable for another. Enforcement consistency can be achieved, Zatezalo said, through improved communication with both the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, West Virginia, and between MSHA districts. He said that it was “important that there is one MSHA . . . not fifteen.”
Ogletree Deakins’ Mine Safety and Health Practice Group will continue to monitor and report on developments involving MSHA and the regulated community.