Mar. 6, 2006 – Both chambers of Congress held hearings on mine safety last week under differing atmospheres of partisanship but without reaching any significant conclusions. The hearings come amid news that nearly as many mine workers have died on the job so far this year as did during all of 2005.
Last Wednesday, the head of the House Subcommittee on Education and the Workforce, Charles W. Norwood (R-Georgia), ended hearings half an hour early, before a second round of witness questioning, additionally snubbing a group of miners and family members who had come to speak.
The subcommittee did listen to statements from two Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials, as well as representatives from United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union and the National Mining Association, an industry group.
Much of the testimony revolved around improving mine safety technology, with discussion about communications and tracking systems taking up the bulk of the time, despite attempts by UMWA Occupational Safety Administrator Dennis Oâ€™Dell to turn the discussion toward enforcement issues.
"MSHA has been neither aggressive nor consistent in enforcing the regulations that do exist," Oâ€™Dell said, charging that "compliance assistance," working cooperatively with businesses, has become a higher priority than enforcing laws. Oâ€™Dell said the several of the agencyâ€™s regulations are "directed at increasing productivity instead of improving minersâ€™ health and safety."
For example, Oâ€™Dell noted, MSHA approved a rule in 2004 permitting mines to use the passageways housing conveyer belts to bring air into mine shafts rather than requiring a separate passageway be opened.
The practice is in direct opposition to requirements issued in the 1977 Mine Safety and Health Act. Operators have successfully petitioned the agency for exemptions to the so-called "belt-air" rule since MSHAâ€™s inception, Oâ€™Dell noted.
According to a statement later released by subcommittee member George Miller (D-California), Norwood ended the hearing without giving Democratic members a chance to question each witness for five minutes, as required under House rules. Norwood did promise to hold additional hearings, but none had been scheduled as of press time.
By contrast, Thursdayâ€™s Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing was largely bereft of political strife. The committee heard from twice as many people and forced answers from MSHA but did not reach an agreement to act on the issue.
There are currently two bills dealing with mine safety in the Senate and one in the House. All three bills were introduced last month and contain provisions to tighten violation enforcement and increase mine safety regulations and requirements.
As reported earlier this year by The NewStandard, MSHA issued just 59 "high-dollar" fines, measuring $10,000 or more apiece, against mine operators in 2004, the last year for which complete information is available. The current penalty structure is 25 years old, according to MSHA.
Though the agency has garnered media attention for its purported plans to ratchet up fines, no date for the increase or proposals for new fine amounts has been made public.
As in the House, much of the discussion revolved around rescue technologies. MSHA head David Dye said his agency is sending people abroad to study communications and tracking systems in use in Australia and elsewhere and noted that MSHA "had 70 different [mine-safety] proposals come in" and is working through them.
According to testimony offered by Mike Neason of the American Society of Safety Engineers, an organization of health-and-safety professionals, mine safety has been steadily improving in the US but could falter without greater government support. Neason called on the White House to commit more resources to the National Institutes of Occupational Safety (NIOSH), a workplace-safety research body within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Under the administrationâ€™s current budget proposal, NIOSH would lose $5 million, Eason noted.
Dye told the Senate committee that his agency would soon propose a rule change requiring new oxygen equipment and better-maintained escape routes in all mines. The proposal is to be published in the Federal Register in the next few days, he said.
The last time Dye appeared before the Senate was at a January 23 meeting of the Appropriations Committee. Dye walked out of that hearing even as Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) asked him to remain.