Mine Safety:

Additional Guidance and Oversight of Mines' Emergency Response Plans Would Improve the Safety of Underground Coal Miners

GAO-08-424: Published: Apr 8, 2008. Publicly Released: Apr 8, 2008.

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In 2006, several mining tragedies led the Congress to pass the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER Act). The law required underground coal mine operators to develop emergency response plans that contain several components designed to improve accident preparedness and response, including providing a refuge of air to miners trapped underground after an accident and wireless communications systems. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is responsible for approving the plans and ensuring their implementation. GAO examined (1) the effectiveness of the approval process, (2) the status of implementation of the plans, and (3) MSHA's efforts to enforce and oversee implementation. To address these questions, GAO reviewed a nonprobability sample of emergency response plans, analyzed MSHA data, and interviewed MSHA officials and members of the mining community.

The effectiveness of MSHA's process for approving underground coal mines' emergency response plans was hampered by several factors, including revisions and delays by MSHA in developing guidance for mine operators on the required components of the plans and the lack of specificity of its guidance, which delayed approval of the plans. MSHA revised its guidance several times and did not issue guidance on one key requirement--providing a refuge of air to miners trapped underground--until 6 months after the initial plans were due. In addition, while the content of the plans may differ because of the unique characteristics of the mines, GAO found that some plans did not specify the protections to be provided and information about these protections varied. For example, some of the plans did not specify whether refuges of air would be provided to miners working in certain areas of the mine to help them survive if they are trapped in the mine after an accident. As a result, it is uncertain whether all of the plans will help ensure that miners will be adequately protected in the event of an accident. Most of the components of the mines' emergency response plans have been implemented but, as of January 2008, two key components remain. First, many mines have not implemented methods of providing air to trapped miners because needed equipment is not available. Second, mines have not begun to implement wireless communications systems or comparable alternatives to meet the June 2009 requirement in the MINER Act because fully wireless technology is not available and MSHA has not determined what technology it will allow mines to use to meet the requirement. The act provides that, where wireless systems are not available, alternatives to wireless communications systems are acceptable. While alternatives are currently available, MSHA headquarters officials told us they had no immediate plans to issue guidance detailing what technology would be acceptable in meeting the June 2009 requirement because they wanted to wait and see how new technologies developed by then. Given the delay, it is uncertain whether mine operators will be able to plan for and order the appropriate technology to meet the deadline, thereby missing opportunities to improve the chances of miners trapped in an underground coal mine after an accident to survive until they are able to be rescued. MSHA's district offices have inspected many of the mines for compliance with their emergency response plans and have issued citations to enforce immediate implementation of the plans, but MSHA headquarters officials have not systematically evaluated the data on citations to identify potential problems with implementation or enforcement. For example, MSHA headquarters has not analyzed or compared citations issued under the statute or related regulations, which may lead to inconsistent enforcement and assessment of penalties. In addition, MSHA has provided insufficient oversight to ensure the quality of emergency response plans or to identify whether corrective actions are needed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On June 5, 2008, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health issued a memorandum (Memo No. HQ-08-060-A) to MSHA District Managers on "Guidance on the Use of Checklists for Emergency Response Plan Reviews." The guidance includes three checklists for MSHA district offices to use when conducting emergency response plan reviews in order to clarify what is required for key components of the emergency response plans. MSHA specifically reported that the memo and checklists were issued to respond to this recommendation and to improve consistency and uniformity across the districts on what must be included in a new emergency response plan review and what must be considered during a 6-month review.

    Recommendation: To ensure that new and existing mines are held to the same agencywide standards in preparing for future accidents, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to develop and issue additional guidance to district offices to clarify what is required for key components of the emergency response plans, such as providing postaccident breathable air for the maintenance of trapped miners.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a June 2008 letter to Congress, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials reported that the agency had been working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on guidance for mine operators on how to meet the June 15, 2009 requirement to provide post-accident wireless communications systems and expected to implement guidelines at least six months prior to the deadline (December 2008). In December 2008, MSHA released guidance to mine operators on meeting the June 15, 2009 deadline. This guidance was published in the Federal Register (volume 73 no. 244) dated December 12, 2008.

    Recommendation: To improve trapped miners' chances of survival after future accidents through the use of advanced technology, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to work with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to develop guidance for mine operators on how to meet the June 2009 requirement to provide postaccident wireless communications systems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) reported that it has completed several actions to implement this recommendation. Specifically, MSHA's Acting Assistant Secretary issued a memo on April 17, 2008 requiring that national and district-level accountability reviews include reviews of relevant emergency response plans to ensure consistency in plan provisions, operator implementation, and enforcement efforts. On June 3, 2008, MSHA's Administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health issued a memorandum (memo no. HQ-08-054-A) to MSHA district managers and staff on "Corrective Measures for Citing Violations of the MINER Act." In this memo, the Administrator clarifies how inspectors should cite mines for violations that could potentially be cited under the law or MSHA standards in order "to ensure that repeat violations are accurately captured in a mine's violation history."

    Recommendation: To improve oversight of the enforcement and approval of emergency response plans, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to take steps to ensure that district offices are consistently applying MSHA's guidance on approving and enforcing emergency response plans, such as: (1) analyzing its citation data by district offices and using the information to clarify policies across districts if these analyses reveal discrepancies in policies; (2) analyzing violations of the MINER Act and related regulations to identify trends and ensure that the appropriate penalties are being assessed, particularly for repeat violations; and (3) reviewing a sample of plans across districts to ensure that the content of the plans meets a consistent agencywide standard and, if not, take corrective action by clarifying the guidance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

 

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