Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Mixed Bag....

Media are reporting on a Department of Labor Inspector General Report that says MSHA's hazard complaint system isn't working the way it should.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - The federal agency charged with keeping U.S. coal mines safe often took two or more days to respond to complaints of hazardous conditions, but it has refused to accept two of 13 recommended improvements from the Office of Inspector General.

The U.S. Department of Labor report, which examined the Mine Safety and Health Administration's hot line responses over three months, recommends MSHA define a timely response in a measurable way, rather than adhering to the current standard of “immediately” or “as soon as possible.”

But the 77-page report says MSHA balked, insisting that a focus on timeliness could lead to an incomplete evaluation of the complaint, an insufficient response and “a premature and uninformed decision.”

Working at MSHA until 2004, I always considered MSHA's hazard complaint reponse system a flagship program. It appeared to me that the district offices took complaints very seriously and made a real effort to detect violations without compromising complainants' anonymity. Was I naive, or has something changed? Or is the IG wrong about some of it? In my observations, IG investigators didn't always fully grasp the programs they were evaluating, and it occasionally seemed as if they themselves were under P.R. or political pressure to find something more to criticize than actually was there. Best to read the whole report.

Interestingly (to me),

The report found that another 11 evaluations were delayed because of a temporary but undetected problem in MSHA's e-mail system, which prevented messages from going to MSHA's contracted answering service or MSHA staff.

Maybe that's why I've been able to reach some MSHA staffers only through my Hotmail account and others only through AOL?

Mine Safety and Health News (by subscription only) recently reported that MSHA lost its paperwork on citations stemming from two different fatal accident inestigations. The papers were misfiled for more than a year, delaying penalty assessments, until the newsletter inquired. This doesn't sound like the MSHA I knew, either. (Full disclosure, I reported this story for MSHN.)

Meanwhile, on a stronger enforcement note, a rare prison sentence in a mine-safety case:

A man convicted along with his father of lying to government investigators about a 2003 death at a southern Illinois coal mine has been sentenced to three months in prison and two years of supervised release.

Lester Erb III, 29, formerly of Harrisburg, also was fined $500 at his sentencing on Sept. 28....

In June, a U.S District Court jury convicted Erb and his father, Lester Erb Jr., 48, of lying to U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators after the death of Adam Scott at a surface mine in Gallatin County.

The elder Erb was also convicted of three counts alleging that as the mine's supervisor, he fudged documentation that falsely showed he had given three employees he hired federally required training. He faces up to five years of prison and $250,000 in fines on each of the five counts. His sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 3.

More federal money for mine safety:

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A mine safety initative at Marshall University will be getting a boost, courtesy of a $2 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall announced on Thursday......

The Marshall University Center for Environmental, Geotechnical & Applied Science received the money to develop the Mine Safety Technology Innovation Capability and Regional Business Development program.

The incubator is designed to allow for the development of new business in mine technology services, to create a technology clearinghouse database and provide technology transfer services including virtual interactive and mine environment simulation technologies to further enhance training.

Good news as far as it goes. Maybe I just feel grouchy today, but why is it that the U.S. mining industry doesn't club together and annually contribute a nice chunk of dollars to continuing mine safety research programs the way the industry does in South Africa and Australia? We all say, and some us actually believe, that safety and productivity and profitability all go together. So why lay it all on the poor taxpayer?

Finally, is there a Nyah-Nonny-Nyah-Nyah Moment on the horizon?

As everyone knows by now, the nomination of Richard Stickler to head MSHA has been shuttling back and forth between the Senate committee, which is not delighted with the choice, and the White House which by gorry is not going to take "no" from an uppity Legislative Branch if it can help it.

Government Executive reports it could be be a recess appointment, which the GOP promised not to do the last time, but the White House may not consider that to be binding on the second go-round. That would give Mr. Stickler a whole year in the job before the next presidential election.

Meanwhile buzz from downtown is that Mr. Stickler, working as a consultant in Department of Labor HQ, still is a go-to on major MSHA decisions. If so, whether he has the title may not be that big a deal. Though it does kind of make a mockery of "advice and consent."


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