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Audit finds deficiencies in government handling of mine hazard complaints

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Audit finds deficiencies in government handling of mine hazard complaints

An audit of the nation's federal mine safety agency foundinconsistencies in logging, assessing and responding to complaints of hazardousmine safety conditions.

The U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector Generalinitiated an audit of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to followup on a 2006 audit finding that MSHA had not evaluated or responded to asignificant number of hazardous condition complaints in a timely way. BetweenJanuary 2012 and December 2015, OIG noted, mine hazards contributed to 151miner deaths and 30,350 injuries.

"MSHA districts treated complaints inconsistentlybecause each district had developed its own processes based on its own interpretationof the MSHA Hazard Complaint Procedures Handbook," the report stated.

Hazardous condition complaints include "malfunctioningequipment, missing safety measures, and toxic , any of which miners can encounterdaily." Effectively managing the hazardous complaint program, the OIGsaid, is "vital" to ensuring action is taken to abate hazards in thenation's mines.

The OIG noted that MSHA's call center sometimes failed toask important follow-up questions essential to directing resources to acomplaint. The report added that MSHA was not following its own triage policyto address misdirection of resources.

"Some complaints did not address actual ," the report stated."Time inspectors spend investigating complaints not involving actualhazards is time taken away from other safety and health inspections andenforcement, decreasing the chances of discovering actual hazards."

The OIG recommended consistent guidelines be implementedacross various offices using the program. At MSHA's District 9 office, forexample, the OIG discovered that operators were not immediately notified ofimminent danger complaints, instead sometimes relaying the notification througha local field office. The District 9 office covers the bulk of coal mining inthe western U.S., including the Powder River Basin.

Two districts, the OIG reported, had no establishedtimeliness goals for responding to incidents and others timeliness response guidelinesallowed between 10 and 30 days to resolve complaints.

Another issue was that a poorly trained, contracted call-centerstaff often did not have mining experience and would have "difficulty inunderstanding the caller's situation" or understanding mining terminology.The same issues with call center staff, the OIG noted, were identified in the2006 audit of the process.

In a letter dated Sept. 19 responding to the report, MSHAhead Joseph Main said the agency agrees with some, but not all, of the report'sconclusions. Main said MSHA has already taken action to clarify that responsesto hazard complaints should take place immediately, and agreed to includetraining for inspection personnel on coding inspections and improving callcenter scripts and training.

Main noted that MSHA believes its current operating plan,which ensures an investigation is started within one day for the most seriousimminent danger complaints, is consistent with the statute and purpose offederal mine safety law.

"MSHA's current triage system was intentionallydesigned to be high-level so as to ensure that safety and health concerns whichportray an imminent danger situation or are likely to result in injury or deathare appropriately addressed," Main wrote. "MSHA believes improvingthe quality of information collected through the call center willimprove the triage process."

Main also pointed to the record low number of miningfatalities in 2015 and 2016 year-to-date as well as a 100% completion rate ofimminent danger complaints within one day of receipt for 2016.

In the face of steep industry decline, MSHA has also facedintense criticism from coal operators. In a recent interview with S&PGlobal Market Intelligence, Murray Energy Corp. CEO Robert Murray said MSHA wassending "600 federal inspectors a month at my mines" and taking awayresources that could be used for safety or shutting down production when anissue could be resolved otherwise. First pointing out that safety is a priorityat his mines and comes first, he said "almost every day" he is seeingan inspector try to shut down one of his mines.

"They are sending up to ten inspectors to inspect amine at a time," Murray said. "I don't have ten people there to sendwith each inspector. They're shutting down our mines. … The federal mine safetyand health administration today under Obama's Department of Labor is not aboutcoal miner safety. It's about quotas of violations. It's about politics."