MSHA cancels clarification letter on escapeway requirements for underground mines

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Washington — After weighing public and stakeholder input, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has rescinded a program policy letter intended to clarify requirements for providing emergency escapeways for underground metal and nonmetal miners, determining that the clarification “is not needed.”

According to a notice published in the May 27 Federal Register, MSHA made its decision after considering comments on the letter – initially published in the July 29 Federal Register – and feedback received during an Oct. 10 public stakeholder meeting.

The agency states that under 30 CFR 57.11050:

  • “Every mine shall have two or more separate, properly maintained escapeways to the surface from the lowest levels which are so positioned that damage to one shall not lessen the effectiveness of the others. A method of refuge shall be provided while a second opening to the surface is being developed. A second escapeway is recommended, but not required, during the exploration or development of an ore body.”
  • “A method of refuge shall be provided” for miners to safely take shelter in the event they are unable to access the areas “when using the normal exit method.”

The letter notes that the refuge site “should be located near the miners so that they promptly and reliably” can enter, and encourages mine operators to confer with MSHA district managers on mine-specific conditions and factors when determining escape and evacuation plans

Worker deaths prompt MSHA safety alert about welds on aerial lifts

Washington — In response to several fatalities resulting from damaged or defective welds on aerial lifts, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued a safety alert.

Published March 23, the alert details an incident in which a weld splice on the repaired arm of a lift fractured because of poor weld quality, killing a mechanic on board. In another incident, a welder died when a lift arm “catastrophically fractured at a critical weld connecting the arm support to its lift cylinder.” In this case, cracks in the weld and the surrounding metal went undetected.

MSHA provides several best practices to help avoid similar tragedies:

  • Use only qualified welders to perform all welding.
  • Inspect all welds after installation and repairs, and perform periodic inspections on welds during an aerial lift’s service life.
  • Consult with manufacturers to determine service/fatigue life of mechanical systems or parts.
  • Educate users on proper lift operations, including how to avoid exceeding “design capacity.”
  • Perform routine examinations of metal components for signs of weakness, corrosion, fatigue cracks, bends, buckling or missing connectors, etc.
  • Use nondestructive test methods to detect cracks that might be indistinguishable to the human eye.
  • Remove cracked mechanical components from service immediately.

“Small cracks can quickly grow and lead to catastrophic fracture,” the alert warns.

COVID-19 pandemic: Miners union calls for emergency MSHA standard

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Photo: RyersonClark/iStockphoto

Triangle, VA — Citing concerns over the adjacent nature of mining work and the growing prevalence of respiratory illness in the industry, the United Mine Workers of America is calling on the Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency standard to help safeguard mine workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a March 24 letter sent via email to MSHA administrator David Zatezalo, UMWA President Cecil Roberts contends miners are “one of the most vulnerable populations” to the potentially deadly respiratory disease. Many workers, he writes, suffer from underlying health conditions such as heart disease, compromised immune systems and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – a deadly but preventable condition commonly known as black lung disease. According to NIOSH, rates of black lung disease have more than doubled over the past 15 years.

Roberts writes that the effects of these conditions “will greatly exacerbate” the symptoms of COVID-19, which include a fever, coughing and shortness of breath. The uneasiness grows for miners who reside in rural areas with limited access to health care.

“Our miners work in close proximity to one another from the time they arrive at the mine site,” the letter states. “They get dressed, travel down the elevator together, ride in the same mantrip, work in confined spaces, breathe the same air, operate the same equipment and use the same shower facilities.”

Roberts calls on MSHA to exercise its authority and require mine operators to:

  • Provide access to N95 respirators
  • Implement policies and procedures for disinfecting equipment between shifts and when changing operators
  • Offer extra personal protective equipment for pulling cables, touching shared equipment and handling shared materials
  • Provide disinfectant strategies for bathhouses and gathering places

­UMWA outlines several precautionary measures various mine operators already have taken:

  • Offering additional disinfection between shifts in toilet, sink, shower and boot wash areas, as well as near bulletin boards and lunch spaces
  • Disinfecting all cap lamps, detectors, radios and any other equipment used by miners, after shifts and before other miners are able to use them
  • Providing miners with disinfecting wipes and spray
  • Disinfecting all equipment before use
  • Providing additional nitrile medical gloves for miners to wear in addition to their required work gloves
  • Limiting the number of miners traveling on elevators and mantrips
  • Suspending the use of hand scanners

However, the letter argues that these practices alone won’t keep miners safe.

“UMWA stands ready to work with MSHA, the mining industry and our members to find ways to protect miners in these unprecedented times,” Roberts writes. “Miners are a resilient people and have overcome many challenges throughout time. This will be yet another situation where we will overcome, protecting our miners, their families, their communities, and allow them to continue to provide these valuable resources when our nation needs them most.”

‘Faces of Black Lung II’: NIOSH releases follow-up video

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Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Washington — Seated on a sofa and struggling to breathe – even with the assistance of oxygen – late Kentucky coal miner Peyton Mitchell, then 42, delivers a testimonial about his battle with black lung disease.

“It just really took a toll on me,” Mitchell says in a video released Jan. 21 by NIOSH. “All the activities I could do outside, I can’t do no more. I’m pretty well on oxygen 24/7 in the house. It’s just humid outside. You just can’t get out and do anything. I just can’t do anything no more.”

Mitchell died of black lung disease in September 2018 at the age of 43. The 20-minute video, Faces of Black Lung II – The Story Continues, was produced in his memory. The video is intended to raise awareness of the growing prevalence of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – a deadly but preventable condition commonly known as black lung – especially among younger miners. Rates of black lung disease have more than doubled over the past 15 years, according to NIOSH.

A follow-up to the agency’s 2008 video, Faces of Black Lung, the new video also features remarks from former coal miners Mackie Branham Jr., 39, and Ray Bartley, 47.

“Black lung disease kills, and it’s once again on the rise, striking miners at much younger ages than ever before,” Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says in the video. “It used to be that we’d see miners dying from black lung disease in their 60s, long before their time. But now, we see miners dying from black lung in their 40s. Even people that don’t have respiratory symptoms can have black lung. Catching it early can allow you to take steps to keep it from progressing to severe lung disease.”

NIOSH reminds mine workers that free, confidential health screenings are available through the agency’s Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program. Miners are eligible to receive a chest X-ray, breathing test and symptom assessment once every five years at a clinic near their mine, Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Cdr. Cara Halldin, who helps lead CWHSP, says in the video. Additional screenings are offered via a NIOSH mobile testing unit.

Branham and Bartley, who along with Mitchell followed a family tradition of working in the mines, offer advice about the importance of early screening and detection.

“Just remember: Take care of yourself,” Branham says. “Because right now, I’ve got two 9-year-olds that I can’t play basketball with. I’ve got a boy I moved into college. I had to stop packing his clothes into his dorm. You can’t do what you used to.”

Adds Bartley: “Do I have any regrets working in the mines? No. I didn’t think I would get sick. My advice if you’re starting up … working in a mine: Stay in good air. Always be safe, work safe.”

U.S. Department of Labor Determines No U.S. Mining Operations Met Pattern of Violations Criteria for 5th Consecutive Year

ARLINGTON, VA – For the fifth consecutive year, none of the nation’s more than 13,000 mining operations met the criteria for a Pattern of Violations (POV), the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) announced today. The screening period started on September 1, 2018, and ended on August 31, 2019.

The POV provision in the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 is one of MSHA’s toughest enforcement tools. MSHA reserves the provision for mines that pose the greatest risk to miners’ health and safety, particularly those with chronic violation records. Continue reading»

Appeals court sides with unions: No mine examinations during shifts

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Washington — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has vacated a 2018 amendment to a 2017 Mine Safety and Health Administration rule that allowed a competent person to inspect the workplace as miners began work rather than prior to a shift – a decision United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts calls “a victory for miners everywhere.”

The court issued its judgment in favor of petitioners UMWA and United Steelworkers, among others, June 11, ruling that the pre-amendment standard be reinstated: Examinations must take place before miners begin their shifts.

“Because the 2018 amendment allows miners to work in an area before the examination is completed, there is the likelihood that miners may be exposed to an adverse condition before it is discovered,” the ruling states.

UMWA and USW applauded the court’s decision.

“Metal and nonmetal miners can now be more confident that their workplace is as safe as it can be before their shift starts, instead of learning about a safety hazard after they are already in the mine,” Roberts said in a June 12 press release. “All miners, whether working in a metal/nonmetal mine or a coal mine, should celebrate this ruling because it prevents MSHA from rolling back critical safety and health standards. If the agency had been allowed to get away with this, there is no question that we would soon be looking at a host of other attempts to reduce safety standards in every mine in America.”

The final rule amending provisions to the original rule was delayed numerous times before taking effect June 2, 2018.

Long shifts, inexperience boost miners’ injury risk: study

Long workdays and being new on the job are two factors that may heighten the risk of workplace injuries among miners, a recent study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago analyzed nearly 546,000 Mine Safety and Health Administration Part 50 worker injury reports filed between 1983 and 2015. They found that 9.6% of the miners logged shifts of at least nine hours on the day they were injured, including 5.5% of miners in 1983 and 13.9% of miners in 2015. Miners involved in shifts of such length were 32% more likely to suffer work-related fatalities and 73% more likely to be part of an incident that caused injuries to multiple miners. Risk factors associated with injuries related to working long hours include lack of routine, irregular schedules, specific mining activities and having less than two years on the job.

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