One unique challenge on mine sites is the rule requiring a phone call to MSHA within 15 minutes of certain serious accidents. Operators otherwise consumed with emergency response must make quick, on-the-scene judgments about whether a miner’s medical condition is life threatening. With 20/20 hindsight, MSHA often disagrees with their decisions and issues citations. A recent case vacating a 15-minute reporting citation is a reminder that there are often good grounds to contest such allegations.

In a September 6, 2018 decision, an Administrative Law Judge vacated two citations issued by MSHA against mine operator Knight Hawk Coal, LLC (“operator”). MSHA had determined that an injury to a miner had a reasonable potential to cause death and issued two citations to the operator, including for violation of the reporting standard under title 30 C.F.R. §50.10(b). After an evidentiary hearing on the citations, the ALJ found in favor of the operator based on the substantial medical assessment conducted by a miner-EMT at the time of the accident and on MSHA’s testimony that it had not considered the EMT’s medical assessment and subsequent treatment of the worker’s injuries in its determinations.

The injury occurred on May 9, 2016, when a large slab of rock fell on a miner and pinned one of his legs. The miner underwent a thorough medical  assessment by an EMT at the site who diagnosed the miner’s injury as non-life threatening with a non-compound fracture to the lower leg and a non-crush injury to the hip. The medical assessment also noted that the miner was alert, conscious, joking with others, with no signs of internal injury, no blood, no crush injuries, and no change in circulation, pallor, or mental status. The EMT’s assessment proved to be correct based on a subsequent diagnosis and surgery performed on the miner at a hospital. The operator reported the injury to MSHA on a 7000-1 Form four days after the accident because the injury did not reasonably raise the potential of death.

Totality of the circumstances is what counts

At hearing, the Secretary argued that the decision to issue the citation did not consider the medical evaluation completed by the EMT or the hospital records but was based on the nature of the accident. The ALJ found that MSHA’s evaluation of the nature of the injury was unsupported by the substantial evidence and their failure to obtain or even inquire as to relevant medical information known to the operator at the time of the accident undermined the credibility of their evaluation. Based on the totality of circumstances and the nature of the injury, the ALJ determined that MSHA’s finding that the accident resulted in an injury with the reasonable potential to cause death was unsupported by the evidence and vacated the citations issued.

As demonstrated by this decision, the totality of the circumstances and the nature of the injury is the standard under which a violation of the reporting requirement must be measured.  Part 50 reporting violations  can be either vacated or significantly reduced based on the factual circumstances of the situation and the information the operator has at the time of the incident. Operators can benefit from contesting MSHA’s interpretation of the reporting requirement based on the specific facts of the case.

Husch Blackwell has decades of experience with complicated accidents and Part 50 citations and can help operators on their challenges to reporting violations. If you have questions relating to reporting requirements and MSHA enforcement actions, contact Donna Pryor or any other member of the workplace safety and health team for further help.