Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Majority of Federal Mine Inspectors Did Not Undergo Required Retraining, Says Audit
Thursday, June 24, 2010
By Edwin Mora

( - The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) which falls under the Labor Department, “did not ensure” that all its coal mine inspectors received retraining in the 2006-07 training cycle, according to an audit by the agency’s inspector general. As a result, a majority of inspectors did not undergo their required retraining.

In addition, the MSHA cancelled all retraining of its mine inspectors for 2008, according to the agency’s spokesperson.

In its March 30 report, entitled Journeyman Mine Inspectors Do Not Receive Required Periodic Retraining, the inspector general’s office states: “Specifically, 56 percent of the 102 journeyman inspectors we sampled had not completed this retraining during the FY 2006–2007 training cycle, and three of these journeyman inspectors had not received retraining since the inception of MSHA’s training policy in 1998.”

The periodic retraining is required by the MSHA. The audit noted that the MSHA “lacked controls to track and assure completion of required periodic retraining by journeyman inspectors, and there were no consequences for not attending retraining courses.”

The report was published just a few days before the April 5 explosion at West Virginia Upper Big Branch coal mine, which left 29 men dead, making it the worst mining accident in the United States in 40 years.

The IG’s audit attributed the percentage of experienced mine inspectors, called journeymen, who had not been retrained to the following: “(1) MSHA lacked controls, at both the headquarters and district levels, to track and assure completion of required periodic retraining by journeyman inspectors and (2) there were no consequences for not attending retraining courses.”

The MHSA, under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 – as amended by the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 – is charged with the protection of health and safety of the more than 300,000 men and women working in the 14,000-plus mines in the United States.

“In selecting persons and training and retraining persons to carry out the provisions of this Act, the Secretary [of Labor] shall … [develop and maintain] adequate programs for the training and continuing education of persons, particularly inspectors,” states the 1977 mine safety and health legislation.

The Labor Department’s IG audit revealed that without required retraining, mine inspectors “may not possess the up-to-date knowledge of health and safety standards, MSHA policies or procedures, or current mining technology needed to perform their inspection duties.”

“In fact, 27 percent of the 264 inspectors who responded to our survey believed that MSHA did not provide them with the technical training they needed to effectively perform their duties,” stated the report.

“This increases the possibility that hazardous conditions may not be identified and corrected during inspections which, in turn, could increase the risk of accidents, injuries, fatalities, and adverse health conditions for miners,” reads the audit.

Nonetheless, Amy Louviere, a spokesperson for MSHA, told that the agency’s “primary focus” of completing its mandated inspections took precedence over retraining its inspectors because the MSHA was faced with a “large number” of new hires to train and it needed all the workers available.

“Congress recognized that MSHA did not have sufficient resources to complete its mandated inspections,” said Louviere. “Consequently, Congress appropriated funding for MSHA to hire 170 additional coal enforcement personnel.”

As a result, with increased hiring in fiscal year 2007, the MSHA ended up with 257 trainees, said Louviere. She added that “since many of the enforcement personnel had just recently completed their training or were still in training, the Agency made its primary focus the completion of all mandated mine inspections,” and not the retraining of veteran inspectors.

“As a result of the large number of trainees, MSHA’s commitment to complete 100 percent of its mandated inspections starting in FY2008 – and the need to use all available resources to meet that commitment – the agency cancelled the retraining for FY2008,” said Louviere.

“To suggest that this issue was in any way linked to the explosion at Upper Big Branch [in West Virginia] would be premature,” she said. “It is up to the accident investigation team to determine exactly the events that led to and ultimately caused the April 5 blast.”

The IG’s report also said that “MSHA officials stated that the ability to complete journeyman retraining during the FY 2006-2007 cycle had been adversely impacted by a series of mining accidents that occurred during those years.”

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