Do I Expect Too Much of MSHA?

Last Wednesday, June 20, I learned from a newspaper reporter that a gold miner was missing at the Newmont company’s Midas mine near Winnemucca, Nevada.  I checked MSHA’s website, but nothing was posted about the accident.  No problem, I’ll cut them some slack.  Maybe within 24 hours they’d provide some details. 

By Friday, there was still no news offered by MSHA, so I began to rely on the Newmont company’s website and updates posted on the local Las Vegas TV stations (KVBC and KLAS).  (The TV stations’ stories provided no more information than that contained in the company’s news release.)  From these sources I learned that evidence of “ground subsidence” (like a sink hole) was observed on Tuesday, June 19 and this is the area where rescue teams were searching for the lost miner.  The company also reported that all of the other gold miners who were underground on Tuesday were evacuated safely. 

Now it’s Monday, June 25, six days after the gold miner went missing.  There’s still no information on MSHA’s website, but I learn from the latest Newmont press update that the trapped miner is Mr. Dan Shaw, 30, and teams from the Carlin and Twin Creek mines are leading the search.  

So, why am I annoyed that I’m forced to rely on the company’s news releases to find out the status of the missing miner?  Why does it bother me so much that MSHA doesn’t have any information about this accident on its website?  Let’s face it, workers die everyday in the our country and people don’t go to OSHA’s website and expect to see information about these accidents.  (In fact, I’ve never been able to find any information on OSHA’s website about current accident investigations.)   Why do I expect more of MSHA?  

This takes me back to early January 2006, watching cable news or checking the web to hear updates on the trapped Sago miners.  The only people providing updates were officials from the mining company, and I wondered “where was MSHA?”  I knew they had to be on-the-scence, but was puzzled that they weren’t offering their own updates.  In the months following Sago, I talked with family members and reporters who all agreed that the agency should not contract-out its public information functions to the mining companies.  If there’s a reason that MSHA isn’t providing information about this trapped Newmont gold miner (e.g., the family of the missing miner requested that no information be released until the miner is found), then the agency could simply post such a notice on its website. 

When it comes to ongoing rescue operations and accident investigations, I do expect more from MSHA.  I want to believe that at MSHA, fatalities involving miners are not just statistics—each one counts—each one is a worker with a family, friends and co-workers left behind.  MSHA, unlike OSHA, posts information promptly about each fatal accident.  At MSHA, I want to believe that each fatality still matters.  That’s one of the many things that makes MSHA different from OSHA.  

On this blog, MSHA gets the bulk of my criticism because it’s an agency that still matters.  It’s relevant, and it still makes a difference in miners’ lives.  No doubt it can do more, and when challenged over the last year, it has done more.  Like me, some of MSHA’s harshest critics do so because we know there is tremendous talent, dedication and potential in the agency staff.   I wonder if former critics of OSHA have simply given up.  Why waste your breath when the agency is nearly irrelevant.  

I reserve my blog time to criticize MSHA because it is still relevant.

Comments

  1. #1 Jason Heilpern
    June 25, 2007

    Hmm THats interesting, I had never thought of having agencies like OSHA and MSHA post updates about current or ongoing investigations. It would certainly make that agency more accountable. Would it not?

  2. #2 Liz
    June 26, 2007

    I think it’s appropriate for MSHA to post these kinds of updates – at the very least, it could show that the agency cares. (The level of caring may fluctuate with different leaders, but I know a lot staff members really do have mineworkers’ interests at heart.)

    It’s logistically far more difficult for OSHA to report on workplace accidents, because the pool of workers in this country is so much larger than the subset of that pool working in mines.

    It’s useful and important for OSHA and the public to know about workplace accidents, especially when those accidents result in deaths. We’re lucky to have Tammy compiling the Weekly Toll, and her work is incredibly valuable to workplace safety advocates, lawmakers, and workers’ family members (and I hope that more of the general public will become aware of it, too). I’m not sure that I’d advocate for OSHA to take on this work, though, when it’s already so far behind on inspections and rulemaking.

  3. #3 Celeste Monforton
    June 26, 2007

    FYI: MSHA has all of its fatality investigation reports posted on its website (in chronological order) going back to 1995. Here is the link: http://www.msha.gov/fatals/fab.htm

    Some of the reports are 5-6 pages long, others may be 50-100 pages long, depending on the complexity of the investigation. If someone wants to review the reports from before 1995, they are available from MSHA. (The MSHA librarians in Beckley, WV are amazing about finding old records!)

    I respectfully disagree with Liz’s comment above. I don’t think it would be too much work for OSHA to provide a list on its website of the notifications that OSHA receives from employers on workplace fatalities. (Not all workplace fatalities have to be reported to OSHA.) Yes, OSHA doesn’t have adequate resources to conduct enough workplace inspections, but maybe if the public (and lawmakers) saw a running list of deaths on the job front and center on OSHA’s website, they’d realize the agency is underfunded.

    I concede that it might not be realistic to expect OSHA to post fatality information that is as sophisticated as MSHA’s fatalgrams (see an example here: http://www.msha.gov/FATALS/2007/FAB07m11.asp.) But why shouldn’t we expect a simple running list, with the date, place of employment, city/state and circumstances of the fatality? If I were a lawmaker, I’d sure want to know more if I saw a fatality occurred in my hometown district. Fatality notifications are already supposed to be provided to federal OSHA by employers operating in States that do not operate their own State-OSHA program. It wouldn’t take much effort at all to post it on the agency’s website, just like MSHA does.

    Yes, OSHA covers a much larger population of workplaces than MSHA, but the lives of workers lost on construction sites, highway jobs, or refineries are no less important than the lives of coal miners or quarry workers. When I look at MSHA’s fatalgrams and running list of fatalities, it hits home, it makes it real. Like I say in this blog post, the only information you can find on OSHA’s website about fatalities is a link to the Bureau of Labor Statistics site where you see aggregrate data on the estimate 5,700 annual workplace fatalities. The who? where? and why? of these deaths are lost in the statistics.

  4. #4 Liz
    June 26, 2007

    Good point, Celeste. I agree that OSHA should make the data it’s already collecting available (workplace fatality reports). The difficulty would come if they were to expand that to the many workplace deaths that aren’t reported – at that point, it could use up a lot more staff time.

  5. #5 Not Elaine Choa
    June 26, 2007

    Flashback to 18 months ago:

    The entire country was watching for news about the fate of 13 trapped miners in Buchanon, West Virginia. The mine operator was iallowed to be in charge of the public affairs function of the rescue, running the press conferences and sending out the press releases. All the while MSHA public affairs staff (mostly political lackeys with no mining knowledge) took their orders from the mine operator who was broadcasting its propaganda directly from the company store.

    Many of us remember the stinging result of Radio Free Massey running the institution. The world was told (and the headlines read) that twelve of the miners were found alive, and video newsfeeds of families celebrating was shown on all the major television networks. All this time the truth, which was known by MSHA and to the mine operator, was not told until much, much later.

    Fast forward back to the present: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Just an aside here, but MSHA’s official Mine Emergency Operations plan clealy specifies that MSHA will run the public affairs during any mine emergency and have staff on site as well as in the Headquarters. It mentions nothing about deputizing the mining company executives, let alone giving them unfettered access.

  6. #6 Celeste Monforton
    June 26, 2007

    Dear “Not Elaine Chao”:
    Yes, that’s why I’m bothered that there isn’t any information on MSHA’s website about the missing gold miner. I have to go to Newmont’s site. I checked it again this morning, and the update is from yesterday. They still haven’t located the miner.

    P.S. I like your “Radio Free Massey” phrase, but remember that Sago was run by ICG/Wolf Run Mining.

  7. #7 Tasha
    June 26, 2007

    Actually OSHA does have their investigation information available on its website: http://osha.gov/pls/imis/accidentsearch.html

    It’s not particularly user friendly, and I’m not sure if they’re still updating it (I think I heard they’re in back-log or something) but it’s there….

    I found the search engine to be completely useless, but at the bottom there is a keyword index which can at least take you to accident reports based on an alphabetical listing of keywords – an excellent resource if you want to convine your workers that forklifts really are dangerous, etc.

    Oregon OSHA has a specific webpage dedicated to fatality investigations, statistics, and other related reports:
    http://www.cbs.state.or.us/osha/standards/fatals/

    I imagine that there are other state plans that might have similar resources (or perhaps we’re just ahead of the game…)

  8. #8 Liz
    June 26, 2007

    Thanks, Tasha! I expect that Oregon OSHA is ahead of the game, but here’s hoping that other states follow the example.

  9. #9 Not Elaine Chao
    June 26, 2007

    Celeste Monforton is right (see her comment from 10:50 a.m. today) that International Coal Group (ICG) owns the Sago Mine, not Massey. I stand corrected. Massey owns the mine that had the disaster a few weeks after Sago.

    Actually, the past six years have been a stream of preventable mine disasters. The most telling fact is that during the eight years before the current regime set up their bunkers here the mines didn’t have multiple fatalities. Now it’s commonplace, as the dedicated men and women in the front office continue to devise newer and better ways to blame the miners and the widows.

  10. #10 Celeste Monforton
    June 27, 2007

    Tasha,
    Thanks for the link on OSHA’s site. I tried to do a simple search, hoping to get a list of all fatalities in the database that occurred over a 60-day period (i.e., didn’t want to overwhelm the system.) I gave a date range of 1/1/06 to 2/28/06, but got an error message to “Please enter a search Term, SIC Number, Office, Inspection Nr, or Date Range.”

    Have you been successful using this OSHA system if you want all fatalities, not just ones related to a specific SIC or OSHA office? The instructions say use a search term like “molten aluminum.” When I use a broad search term like “death,” “killed,” “fatality,” “fatal accident,” I get zilch.

  11. #11 Tasha
    June 27, 2007

    The search engine didn’t give me anything either, even when I tried using SIC code searching. I think it’s broken because it appears to be completely useless.

    However at the bottom of the search engine there is a spot that says “Keyword list”. If you use this, you can at least get to some basic report descriptions using the topical index.

  12. #12 Tasha
    June 27, 2007

    Ok, this is kind of funny, given my first comment –

    I clicked on the Keyword List link for “F”… and I couldn’t find forklift in the keyword list… Apparently forklifts aren’t that dangerous after all… :)

    (But you better watch out for those “Ferris Wheels”)

  13. #13 Kenny
    January 20, 2010

    To everyone who has put time and effort into posting here, what has been your experience with accidents and training? Does good msha training make any kind of difference or are there bound to be accidents regardless? Besides just minimizing fines (which have been ever-increasing), is there social pressure for companies to provide safety training to miners?

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