A report at the end of last year by DOL’s Office of Inspector General highlights what OIG considers major challenges for OSHA and MSHA in fulfilling their missions. The report also provides a window into where the workplace safety agencies may focus their energies in 2019 – and where employers may face increased risks of enforcement and other liability.

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On October 17, 2018, OIRA published the fall regulatory agenda for MSHA. The major regulatory priority on MSHA’s agenda continues to be an examination of the protections provided to reduce underground miners’ exposure to diesel exhaust and refuge alternatives for underground coal mines. The MSHA/NIOSH Diesel Health Effects Partnership convened its third meeting in July 2018 and attracted 50 stakeholders from across the industry spectrum to chart an effective path for change.

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During its recent quarterly stakeholder call, the Mine Safety and Health Administration announced a new “Fire Suppression Safety Initiative” (FSS) to ensure that fire suppression systems on mobile equipment are in working order and capable of extinguishing equipment fires. The initiative appears to involve educating operators about FSS, including proper inspections and maintenance, as well as stepping up related enforcement.

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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.

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According to a recent court opinion, last month MSHA reached a settlement with a mining company that included removing the company from the list of operators with a “pattern of violations” (POV). While a 3-1 majority of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission agreed to dismiss the case, one commissioner dissented strongly.

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With the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, occupational safety and health professionals may be interested in the impact he may have on future cases involving OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, MSHA, and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week has shown him to be thoughtful and very well qualified (not to mention incredibly patient).  At this point, it seems apparent to all that he will soon be confirmed by the Senate.

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Here’s an all-too-familiar story with an all-too-uncommon ending. An MSHA inspector saw equipment positioned a certain way, assumed that someone had used it unsafely in that position, and issued a citation. A judge then upheld the citation by giving more weight to the inspector’s assumption than to the worker’s sworn testimony about how he acted safely. But, in this case, the mine operator refused to accept that unfair result. They appealed… and won.

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