Earlier this month, William Scott Hill, 33, of Staffordsville, KY was killed while cutting trees to prepare for a surface coal mine for the Premier Elkhorn Coal Company (TECO Energy). Mr. Hill was employed by Gopher Contracting of Jackson, KY. His death on June 3 reminded me of other fatalities involving tree cutters working at mining operations, including Lawrence Payne, 32, who was killed in March 2004 and William S. Woods, 44, who was killed in December 2004.**
Just as I was reading about Mr. Hill’s death, OSHA sent an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking on June 19 to OMB concerning tree care operations. The OSHA notice states that about 58 fatalities occur each year during tree-servicing operations, and an ANSI standard (Z133.1-2006) might be an appropriate model for an OSHA standard. But wait! Why don’t we seriously consider a rule to protect workers involved in tree cutting which could be used by both OSHA and MSHA.
Whether a worker is clearing trees for a road project or at a mining operations, the safety standards described in ANSI Z133.1-2006 could apply equally well for OSHA’s and MSHA’s purposes. OSHA notes that it has standards on logging and line-clearance trimming, but no comprehensive rule for tree-trimming or tasks related to removing trees and brush. In the tree-cutting deaths described above, the only applicable MSHA regulations related to inadequate general training and workplace examinations, hardly specific enough to really PREVENT the fatal injuries from occurring in the first place.
Although this idea of a federal standard to protect workers engaged in tree-cutting operations is in its regulatory infancy, I’d love to see the senior career employees at OSHA and MSHA put their heads together to plan for a safety standard which would be used by both federal agencies. Face it, the hazards, and the control measures and alternatives are the same no matter whether the worksite is under OSHA or MSHA jurisdiction. In fact, I bet that many of the employers affected by the rule are contracted to work on all sorts of jobs—prep for construction sites, roads and mine sites. It makes perfect sense to have one rule which would apply to all tree-cutting operations.
If the senior career officials at OSHA and MSHA put their heads together on this one, they would realize how pooling their agencies’ talent and resources to prepare the preamble, regulatory text and economic analysis, and conduct a public hearing, could be a big win for ALL workers at risk from tree-cutting hazards. Their plan could be ready just in time for a new Administration, with these senior career officials taking the first step toward a new day in Washington and new thinking on ways to give workers the protections they deserve.
**Note: Both of the 2004 victims had been employed by Mountain Top Clearing, Fairdale, WV. The monetary penalty paid for violations related to Mr. Payne’s death totaled $6,000 and in Mr. Woods’ death they totaled $337 (yes, three hundred thirty-seven dollars.)
Celeste Monforton, MPH is with the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington University. She worked at OSHA (1991-1995) and MSHA (1996-2001).