On Tuesday, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held an oversight hearing on MSHA and mine safety, featuring Assistant Secretary of Labor David Zetazelo, who outlined his priorities for MSHA.

Zatezalo was the sole witness to appear and answer questions from Democrats and Republicans alike. An archive of the hearing video and opening statements can be found here.

Mr. Zatezalo began his testimony by stating his commitment to further improving mine safety:

In 2017 a total of 28 mining fatalities occurred. That is 28 too many. I strongly believe, as I know you agree, even one mining fatality is one too many. However, 2017 represented the second lowest number of deaths ever recorded and the third year in MSHA’s history that there were fewer than 30 fatalities.

The Assistant Secretary emphasized several 2018 priorities:

  1. 2018 implementation of a new inspection tool to improve inspector communications, data and information availability.
  2. Review of an expected National Academy of Sciences study and report on occupational diseases associated with dust exposures.
  3. A request for information on new mining technologies that can advance safety, particularly for haulage equipment. Haulage and mobile equipment were involved in 24 fatalities in 2017.
  4. Identification of regulations that should be updated or reformed (e.g., references to dated electrical codes).
  5. Visits to every MSHA district office.

The Republicans on the Committee focused on the need for compliance assistance, particularly for small mines; regulatory review to reduce burdens; and training assistance, particularly for miners with limited experience and the need for consistency among inspectors and between districts.

Committee Democrats focused on increasing criminal sanctions for violations of the Mine Act, a report claiming that there have been more than 400 new black lung cases in Virginia, the difference between MSHA’s silica standard and OSHA’s lower standard, and the Pattern of Violations rule, including an alleged conflict of interest due to the Assistant Secretary prior roles at the Ohio and Kentucky Coal associations, which are plaintiffs in a case challenging that rule.

The Assistant Secretary was an outstanding witness, demonstrating his commitment to safety improvements. At the same time, he provided substantive responses that weren’t influenced by vigorous partisan questioning. The participating Committee Members also demonstrated their knowledge of the issues and their ability to focus on their priorities. More hearings are anticipated.