Highs and lows of Labor Department websites

This week the differences between OSHA’s and MSHA’s websites were oh so obvious. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released a new on-line tool to allow users to compare a mining operation’s violations of selected safety standards to the national average. For years, mine-specific violations, penalties, injury reports, exposure sampling results, and other data have been available on MSHA’s website, but this new tool offers something different.  It focuses on a subset of safety violations which most frequently cause or contribute to fatalities and serious injuries.

While MSHA continues to make its vast trove of enforcement data available to the public—not just available, but easily searchable and accessible—OSHA’s website has been floundering. For at least the last month, the simplest query of OSHA’s “Establishment” or “Specific Inspection” search tool results in the message “Temporarily Unavailable.”

The system is especially annoying because it teases you. You don’t know from one hour to the next whether the system is working or still in disrepair. I can conduct a search at one moment, and it might spit out the data I requested.  Yeah! I think the programming glitches have finally been fixed, but only minutes later, I’m frustrated again. The next query ends with the message “Temporarily Unavailable.” It feels a little like fall 2013. That’s when I was attempting, night after night, to get onto the original Obamacare website.

I realize that OSHA’s and MSHA’s core function is enforcing safety and health regulations and helping employers comply with them. It’s not about having a splashy website or data search tools that have all kinds of bells and whistles. But the public, especially reporters, have come to rely on getting basic inspection data from the agencies’ websites. Users have become accustomed to finding out whether a particular establishment has had previous OSHA inspections, and if so, whether citations and penalties were proposed and the disposition of them.

Now that I’ve grown used to getting OSHA inspection data, it’s frustrating to get the error message “Temporarily Unavailable.”  I’m not sure the phrase “Temporarily Unavailable” really communicates what users should expect. After weeks and weeks of this problem, “Temporarily Unavailable” really doesn’t cut it. How about a message to users:

“Data will only available intermittently. Upgrades expected to be completed by X date.”

Maybe the agency could provide users a bit of information to manage their expectations. Is it a problem with the dataset, the interface between the dataset and the website, or the website platform?  Should we start to see incremental improvements in the site, or will there be a master unveil? Is the problem unique to OSHA or should we be dreading the same fate in the future for MSHA’s on-line search tools? (I’ve got my fingers crossed to stave off the latter.)

As for the subset of violations featured in MSHA’s new on-line data tool, it includes standards such as keeping workers away from suspended loads of material or equipment, ensuring machinery is not used beyond its intended design, and locking out equipment during repair or maintenance. MSHA calls them the “Rules to Live By” standards. Companies are just asking for trouble—and gambling with workers’ lives—when they disregard these important protections.

This morning, I checked out this new MSHA on-line data tool. I queried the system for Newmont USA’s gold mine in Leeville, NV.  A contract worker, Brian Holmes, 53, was fatally injured there on January 11, 2015. Plugging the mine’s unique identification number into the system, I learned something troubling: From 2012 through 2014, the rate of violations (per MSHA inspections hours) at this mine of the “Rules to Live By” standards was 2.38 compared to the national average rate of 0.77 for this type of operation. Gambling with workers’ lives indeed.

This data tool and the others available on MSHA’s website can provide valuable information to current and prospective workers, contractors, investors, competitors and the public about a specific mining operation or a group of mines owned by a particular company. It’s data that can help users make informed decisions.

Kudos to MSHA for developing new ways for miners, employers and the public to access the agency’s data. I hope your agency has a vaccine to avoid whatever is troubling OSHA’s website.