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MSHA Undertakes Phase Two Of Its 'One MSHA' Initiative



July 2, 2019 - Soon after his confirmation, David Zatezalo, the Assistant Secretary of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), began laying out his vision for MSHA under his leadership. A key aspect of his vision is ‘One MSHA,’ a mission to eliminate the historical separation within MSHA between metal/non-metal mines and coal mines and, instead, to operate as a single entity focused on overall mine safety. By implementing this vision, MSHA is striving to make more efficient uses of its resources. In furtherance of the mission, Assistant Secretary Zatezalo created the new position of administrator for mine safety and health enforcement. Timothy R. Watkins, former district manager for MSHA Coal District 12 in West Virginia, was appointed to the position and has responsibility for enforcement over all mines subject to MSHA jurisdiction. The first phase of ‘One MSHA’ started Oct. 1, 2018, and designated 90 mines to be inspected by inspectors who had been cross-trained. Approximately 21 inspectors received the training.

At a recent industry safety conference in April 2019, Watkins discussed details of the ‘One MSHA’ initiative and the rollout of Phase Two, some of which is already underway. Watkins noted that MSHA does not yet have a final vision of what ‘One MSHA’ will necessarily look like and stated, “We continue to look at opportunities to blur the distinction between coal and metal/non-metal enforcement where it makes sense.”

As previously noted, Phase One consisted of the crossover of inspectors between coal and metal/non-metal. For example, a quarry operator might see a couple of coal mine inspectors arrive to conduct an inspection or hazard complaint investigation. The crossover was dependent, in large part, on personnel availability.

Now, with Phase Two, MSHA is being more intentional in its development of ‘One MSHA.’ Phase Two consists of re-aligning eight field offices to a district office that geographically makes more sense and moving inspection responsibility of certain mines to a different field office where it geographically makes more sense. This will result, for example, in some metal/non-metal mines being assigned to what was traditionally a coal field office and some coal field offices being assigned to a metal/non-metal district office.

MSHA anticipates providing the regulated industry with more specific information about which field office and district office will have responsibility for a mine site. Affected mine operators should be receiving phone calls from MSHA to advise of any change or re-assignment.

In addition, approximately 117 more mines will be inspected by cross-trained inspectors starting in Phase Two as training of inspectors continues. MSHA developed a training module to prepare inspectors for the crossover into what is likely to be unfamiliar territory for many inspectors. The cross-training, which started this past October, has continued in the new year at the MSHA Academy in Beckley, W.Va., and approximately 200 inspectors have been cross-trained. However, MSHA has said that inspector expertise will still be required for certain mines.

Watkins also stated at the conference that district offices will be renamed at some point, most likely to reflect the city in which the district office is situated. The days of coal districts being identified by number and the metal/non-metal districts being identified by a geographic designation, such as Rocky Mountain or Southeast, are numbered. At press time, MSHA expected to begin the re-alignment of offices on May 1, 2019.

In addition to Watkins, a number of other MSHA officials attended and participated in the safety conference. Wayne Palmer, deputy assistant secretary – policy, spoke on the technological advancements that the agency is currently exploring or implementing. MSHA has been beta testing a new Mine Data Retrieval System (MDRS), accessible through its home page. The agency expects to take it live in the near future. if it has not already done so. Palmer noted that the new MDRS will have enhanced search capabilities and will be compatible with mobile devices. It will also allow users to transfer data into Excel worksheets more easily. MSHA is also working on an updated website, one that would be more comparable to the Department of Labor’s website. As part of the conversion to a new website, the agency is removing a lot of old policy documents. It is unclear whether, once removed, the documents will be available through some sort of archival access.

While MSHA’s stated mission “to prevent death, illness, and injury from mining and promote safe and healthful workplaces for U.S. miners” has not changed, MSHA is undeniably in a state of transition consistent with the changes the mining industry has experienced as a whole in recent years. As evident from the initiatives mentioned in this article, many changes within the agency have been implemented, and it appears many more will be implemented in the foreseeable future. During this transition period, mine operators must stay abreast of regulatory changes, have their voice heard, and help shape what appear to be significant changes in the regulatory environment.