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Beginning in December 2006, I’ve written five blog post commenting on the content of the Department of Labor’s (DOL) regulatory agenda for worker health and safety rulemakings.  Most of my posts [see links below] have criticized the Labor Secretary and senior OSHA and MSHA staff for failing to offer a bold vision for progressive worker protections.  Now that the Obama & Solis team have been on board for more than a year, I’m not willing to cut them any slack for being newbies.  Regrettably, as with the Bush/Chao agendas, my posts today will question rather than compliment the OSHA team (and any bigger fish up the food chain) who are responsible for this plan.

I’ll start with the good news from OSHA’s reg agenda.   In the month of July, OSHA projects it will issue two final rules, one on cranes and derricks in construction and another to revise the OSHA 300 log with a column to record musculoskeletal disorders.  The first is a rule that has been in the works for 7 years and long overdue (here, here, here, here, here, here, here.)  The second will simply reinstate a change in injury recordkeeping requirements that should have taken affect in early 2001, but was axed by OSHA officials under direction from the Bush/Chao Administration.

Now, the reg agenda items that have me perplexed.  We’ve heard the Secretary Solis and Asst. Secretary Michaels talk about green jobs, and we know that construction workers are a large part of that workforce.  But, construction workers continue to get short-shrift at OSHA when it comes to mandatory H&S protections.

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Last week Labor Secretary Solis released in the Federal Register on April 26, 2010, her Spring 2010 regulatory agenda for the Department, including her rulemaking priorities for MSHA and OSHA.  As required by the Regulatory Flexibility Act it was published on time in April, in contrast to her Fall 2009 agenda which was six weeks late. 

This document is described by the Secretary as a:

“…listing of all the regulations it expects to have under active consideration for promulgation, proposal, or review during the coming 1-year period.  The focus of all departmental regulatory activity will be on the development of effective rules that advance the Department’s goals and that are understandable and usable to the employers and employees in all affected workplaces.”

As my mentor Dr. Eula Bingham used to say to her staff (during her tenure as OSHA chief the Carter Administration): the only rulemaking activies that truly count for worker health and safety are publishing proposed and final rules.   Efforts that distract, divert, or delay the regulation writers’ duties should be avoided.  Currently, OSHA has about 100 full-time (FTEs)  individuals assigned to its H&S standards office, and MSHA has about 17 FTEs.

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William “Bob” Griffith, 54 died at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine on April 5.   His tribute page says he

“came from a family of miners, went into the mines as a young man with his father and worked there like his brothers.  …When he wasn’t working, Griffith and his wife were fixing up their 1967 Camaro.”

His wife Melanie Griffith has now asked MSHA asst. secretary Joe Main twice (once on April 20 and April 23) for his agency to hold a public hearing as part of the disaster investigation.  In her request yesterday, she pleads for a response, noting:

“time is of the essence”

Her letter continues:

“It is our understanding that MSHA will begin witness interviews on Tuesday.  Family members deserve and demand full transparency and a voice as they go through what is undoubtedly the most difficult time of their lives.  Please respond to this most urgent request.”

I’m confident that Mr. Main and the Labor Secretary’s top staff will make a prompt decision on Mrs. Melanie Griffith’s request, or contact her (and the other Massey families) early next week to fill them in on their decision-making process.

by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

MSHA last Tuesday issued a citation to the Performance Coal Co. Upper Big Branch Mine – South, alleging insufficient measures to control explosive coal dust before the fatal April 5 explosion.  The April 13 citation was based on a sample taken March 15 – three weeks before the fatal accident. The time required for lab analysis of such samples creates a lag in obtaining results.  An MSHA inspector took eight dust samples from mine surfaces on March 15, the citation stated.

“One out of eight samples taken were less than 80 per centum of combustible [sic] content,”

read the text of the citation, in a printout from MSHA’s computer system obtained by Mine Safety and Health News.

MSHA alleged that the mine violated standard 75.403.  The standard specifies that incombustible content of underground coal mine surfaces required to be rock dusted must be at least 65% in general, 80% in return air courses, and still higher – according to a formula – for each 0.1% methane present.  The samples were taken on Mechanized Mining Unit 029-0, according to the citation.  A detailed mine map provided by MSHA indicated that that 029-0 was the number of the unit engaged in developing a new area for future longwall mining.

In issuing the citation – 8 days after the blast – MSHA characterized the alleged violation as “reasonably” likely to cause up to 30 deaths. Negligence by the mine operator was characterized as “low,” however.  The April 5 accident remains under investigation, and whether the alleged violation could have actually contributed remains undetermined.

MSHA also on April 13 issued a withdrawal order to the Upper Big Branch Mine under section 104(b) for alleged failure to correct a previously cited violation within the time allowed, the agency database showed.

MSHA did not respond today to a request for specifics on the alleged uncorrected violation.

Kathy Snyder worked at MSHA for 26 years in the office of public affairs.  She retired from her career position at the agency in 2004, and is the Washington, DC correspondent for Ellen’s Smith publication  Mine Safety and Health News

by Tom Bethell

Twenty-nine coal miners lost their lives in last week’s massive explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

Why?

Part of the answer to that question will have to wait until the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) conducts its investigation of the disaster.  Only then will we know precisely where the ignition point was and why methane was allowed to build to the point where it constituted 5 to 15 percent of the mine atmosphere — the range at which the otherwise inert gas becomes lethally explosive.

But no one familiar with the coal mining industry will have to wait to answer the larger question:

Why do coal miners die?

They die because of negligence.  They die because the company they work for cares more about running coal than making mines safe.  And they die because the federal agency that is charged with protecting them fails in its mission.

About the first instance of negligence there can be no question.  The explosion was too violent and too extensive to have been caused by a pocket of methane alone.  The initial blast must have ignited coal dust — which is even more explosive than methane — and that couldn’t have happened if management had been diligent about cleaning up accumulations of loose coal, particularly along the conveyor belt carrying coal out of the mine.  But we know from MSHA’s inspection records that maintenance at Upper Big Branch never got top priority.  That went to production — regardless of how many times the mine was cited for lax safety practices.

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Last month, the US Dept of Labor (DOL) and MSHA were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.  Their proclamations said:

“…this law represents a watershed moment in the improvement of occupational health and safety in the United States. It was the precursor to the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which created MSHA, and it was the basis of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970.  The Coal Act forever transformed occupational safety and health in the United States.”

Now, I’m reading news story after news story with these same officials asserting the Mine Act is weak and doesn’t provide MSHA the tools it needs to shut down dangerous workplaces.  The spin machine is kicking into high gear. 

The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. reports that federal inspectors issued closure orders at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine more than 60 times in 2009 and 2010.  The mine was repeatedly cited for allowing potentially explosive coal dust to accumulate and for flagrant violations of its very own ventilation plan. (When a mine operator deviates even slightly from its approved plan for ensuring proper airflow in an underground mine, the consequences can be devastating.   Sadly, very sadly, that’s likely a contributing factor in Monday’s explosion that killed 25 coal miners and possibly the four workers who have not yet been found.)  Ward also reports on “talking points” developed by senior DOL officials to help them answer the growing list of questions about its agencies’ enforcement activities at the Massey Upper Big Branch mine (UBB) in the months and days before the catastrophe.  One talking point says:

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by Bill Hoyle

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has declined so far to investigate the December 4th fatal explosion at the Valero oil refinery in Texas City, Texas.  Like OSHA, the CSB is spread thin due to underfunding and understaffing.   CSB further argues, however, that they do not plan to investigate because Valero claims that there was no release of hazardous material. 

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The first regulatory agenda under OIRA chief Cass Sunstein was published today in the Federal Register [link to its 237 pages .]  The document includes a narrative of Labor Secretary Solis’ vision for worker health and safety, mentioning these specific hazards: crystalline silica, beryllium, coal dust, airborne infectious agents, diacetyl, cranes and dams for mine waste.   The document purports to “demonstrate a renewed commitment to worker health,” yet the meat of the agenda tells a different story for particular long-recognized occupational health hazards.

Take, for example, MSHA’s entry on respirable coal mine dust, a pervasive hazard associated with reduced lung function, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, progressive massive fibrosis, and more.  Despite an announcement last week by Labor Secretary Solis and MSHA Asst. Secretary Joe Main saying they want to “end new cases of black lung among the nation’s coal miners,” they aren’t planning to PROPOSE any regulatory changes for 10 months.   That’s a “renewed commitment to worker health”?   Hardly.

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Each year, the Public Relations Society of America gives a Silver Anvil Award, which “acknowledges the very highest level of achievement and is the established icon of the ‘best of the best’ public relations practices.” The latest Silver Anvil has just been given to the communications firm Edelman for its work for Imperial Sugar following the 2008 explosion at its Port Wentworth, Georgia facility, which killed 14 workers and severely injured another 32.

While we here at The Pump Handle have focused on the company practices that allowed for a dangerous accumulation of combustible dust, Edelman was considering another question: “Would Imperial be seen as the helpless victim of a disaster or as a company poised to rebuild?” Edelman was considered an award-winning success because its PR work helped achieve an outcome favorable to Imperial Sugar: the restarting of production at the Port Wentworth facility and stabilization of its stock price.

The writeup of Edelman’s achievements also mentions “turn-on-dime responsiveness,” but the Savannah Morning News’s Larry Peterson has a different perspective on the company’s responsiveness:

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Sixteen months ago when OSHA’s Assistant Secretary Edwin Foulke testified before the House Education and Labor Committee, Chairman George Miller chastised OSHA’s  failure to aggressively address combustible dust hazards.   

“I see such an incredible lack of urgency on your part, about the role of your agency to protect workers, that it’s astounding.”

The hearing came about one month after the catastrophe at the Imperial Sugar plant in Port Wentworth, Georgia, that killed 14 and seriously injured dozens of others.   The OSHA chief asserted that his agency was still assessing whether a standard on combustible dust was necessary.   The result: no meaningful regulatory action by OSHA on combustible dust.  Is Secretary Solis’ OSHA heading down the same path:  no meaningful action for workers on combustible dust??

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