Fewer than half of the inspectors with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration are working during the continuing federal government shutdown, and they’re focused mainly on mines the agency already knows have a history of hazards.
MSHA’s shutdown plan furloughs nearly 1,400 of its 2,355 employees nationwide. Only 13 people remain on the job at the national office in Arlington, Va.
The United Mine Workers of America is stepping up safety efforts at union mines, but it worries about the effect of the government shutdown on non-union operations.
At union mines, workers can point to safety hazards and demand management fix them. If they go uncorrected, miners can refuse to work.
Union spokesman Phil Smith tells The Charleston Gazette that it’s harder for non-union miners to feel comfortable exercising that right because they often fear retribution.
“It’s never good when the full weight of the government’s watchdog agency can’t be brought to bear to protect miners, union or non-union,” Smith said.
If a hazard is identified at a non-union mine and MSHA is somehow informed, he said, “it is highly unlikely that any corrective action will occur until an inspector actually gets to the site, observes the violation and writes it up.”
MSHA’s contingency plan says inspectors will also do “hazard-specific inspections,” meaning they’ll focus on conditions and practices that have been the most common cause of injuries and deaths.
Federal law requires that MSHA do four full inspections a year at every underground coal mine and two at every surface mine, but the agency has sometimes struggled to comply.
Budget and staffing cuts preceded a series of coal mining disasters that killed 28 people in West Virginia, Kentucky and Utah in 2006 and 2007.
Staffing and budgets have since stabilized, but agency lapses played a role in the conditions that existed at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine before it exploded in 2010, killing 29 men in the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four decades.