The Trump Administration is proposing to scrap a requirement for mine operators to conduct safety checks before miners begin their work. Identifying hazards and fixing them is key to preventing work-related injuries and deaths.
The requirement on Trump's chopping block applies to more than 11,000 mining operations that extract metals and aggregates, such as underground gold and salt mines and rock quarries. Similar requirements for coal mines are not part of the administration’s announcement, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see this proposal lead to similar changes at coal mines.
The rule “Examination of Working Places in Metal and Nonmetal Mines” was adopted by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in January 2017. Its timing at the end of the Obama administration made it particularly vulnerable to a rollback by the Trump’s anti-regulation squad.
The rule established new mine safety protections. In my words:
A competent person is supposed to examine each workplace area at least once each shift before miners begin work in that area. The person is supposed to identify conditions that may adversely affect miners’ safety or health. Before the end of the shift, the person is supposed to put in writing the areas examined and each condition found that may adversely affect miners’ safety or health. When the hazardous condition is fixed (whether immediately or later) a notation is made about when and how it was fixed.
When MSHA issued the rule in January, the agency made an estimate of the rule's cost to mine operators, which largely involved additional wages for the time spent conducting the safety examinations. MSHA estimated, for example, an annual cost of less than $500 for a mining operation with 1-19 employees. (Nearly 90 percent of the mines affected by the rule (about 10,500) fall into this size category.) MSHA made separate cost estimates for mines with 20 to 500 employees (about 1,200 operations) and mines with more than 500 employees (22 operations.) In total, MSHA estimated an annual cost of about $27 million for the industry to comply with the safety examination rule.
But now a Trump administration’s appointee at MSHA, Wayne Palmer, makes a very strange assertion: By modifying the January 2017 safety examination rule, MSHA can give employers more flexibility, eliminate $27 million in costs, and not diminish mine safety. One of the key changes is this: safety examination could be performed while miners are beginning their work, rather than before miners begin their work.
Somebody forgot to explain to the Trump crew that the purpose of pre-work safety examinations is to find hazards before workers are exposed to them. The change proposed by MSHA undercuts that purpose.
The agency's announcement is laced with language about how this proposal will reduce regulatory burdens. No doubt about that because it would allow mine operators to revert back to the lesser requirements which were in place before the January 2017 rule was adopted. MSHA awkwardly describes it this way in its announcement:
"The examination was already required prior to the 2017 rule and therefore not an additional cost for either the 2017 rule or this proposed rule. Under this proposed rule, mine operators would not be required to make the 2017 rule changes to the examination timing that were estimated to add $26.9 million for overtime, backfill, and rescheduling."
The Trump administration's deregulatory zeal is obvious. But they are also trying to insist that the proposed changes will not diminish safety protections for miners. Several times MSHA writes:
"these changes to the 2017 rule would not reduce the protections afforded miners."
There's a reason the Trump administration repeats it. The Mine Act expressly forbids the agency from adopting regulations that diminish miners' safety. The Mine Act reads:
"No mandatory health or safety standard promulgated under this title shall reduce the protection afforded miners by an existing mandatory health or safety standard."
It will be up to worker safety advocates to demonstrate the safety difference between performing a hazard assessment before miners begin their worker versus while miners are beginning to work. We already know that the Trump administration and some in the mining industry will be arguing there is no difference.