oversight

Mine Safety: MSHA Devotes Substantial Effort to Ensuring the Safety and Health of Coal Miners, but Its Programs Could Be Strengthened

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-09-05.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                 United States General Accounting Office

GAO              Report to Congressional Requesters




September 2003
                 MINE SAFETY
                 MSHA Devotes
                 Substantial Effort to
                 Ensuring the Safety
                 and Health of Coal
                 Miners, but Its
                 Programs Could Be
                 Strengthened




GAO-03-945 

                                                September 2003


                                                MINE SAFETY

                                                MSHA Devotes Substantial Effort to
Highlights of GAO-03-945, a report to           Ensuring the Safety and Health of Coal
congressional requesters
                                                Miners, but Its Programs Could Be
                                                Strengthened


Despite a drop in injury and fatality           To help ensure the safety and health of underground coal miners, MSHA
rates since the formation of the                staff review and approve mine plans, conduct inspections, and investigate
Department of Labor’s Mine Safety               serious accidents. In these three areas, GAO found that MSHA has extensive
and Health Administration (MSHA),               procedures and qualified staff. However, MSHA can improve its oversight,
mining is still a dangerous industry.           guidance, and human capital planning efforts.
Focusing on underground coal
mines, GAO assessed how well                    MSHA is not effectively monitoring a few key areas. MSHA headquarters
MSHA oversees its process for                   does not ensure that 6-month technical inspections of ventilation and roof
reviewing and approving critical                support plans are being completed in a timely fashion. This may lead to
types of mine plans and the extent              mines operating without up-to-date plans or mine operators not following all
to which MSHA’s inspections and                 requirements of the plans. Additionally, MSHA officials do not always ensure
accident investigations processes               that hazards found during inspections are corrected promptly. Gaps were
help ensure the safety and health of            found in the information that MSHA uses to monitor fatal and nonfatal
underground coal miners.                        injuries, limiting trend analysis and agency oversight. Specifically, the
                                                agency does not collect information on hours worked by independent
                                                contractor staff needed to compute fatality and nonfatal injury rates for
In order to provide better oversight            specific mines, and it is difficult to link information on accidents at
over its operations, GAO                        underground coal mines with MSHA’s investigations.
recommends that the Assistant
Secretary for Mine Safety and                   Guidance provided by MSHA management to agency employees could be
Health                                          strengthened. Some inspection procedures are unclear and are contained in
• 	monitor the timeliness of                    many sources, leading to differing interpretations by mine inspectors. The
   technical inspections conducted              guidance on coordinating inspections conducted by specialists and regular
   as part of the 6-month review of             inspectors is also unclear, resulting in some duplication of effort.
   certain mine plans,
• 	ensure that mine operators are               Finally, although about 44 percent of MSHA’s underground coal mine
   correcting hazards identified                inspectors will be eligible to retire in the next 5 years, the agency has no plan
   during inspections in a timely               for replacing them or using other human capital flexibilities available to the
   manner,                                      agency to retain its highly qualified and trained inspectors. The potential
• 	develop a plan for addressing                shortage of inspectors may limit MSHA’s ability to ensure the safety and
   anticipated shortages in the                 health of underground coal miners.
   number of qualified inspectors
   due to upcoming retirements, and             Miners Exiting an Underground Coal Mine
• 	revise the systems used to collect
   information on accidents and
   investigations.

In its comments on the report,
MSHA did not comment on our
recommendations but disagreed
with many of the findings on which
the recommendations are based.
www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-945.

To view the full product, including the scope
and methodology, click on the link above.
For more information, contact Bob Robertson
at (202) 512-9889, robertsonr@gao.gov.
Contents 



Letter                                                                                   1
               Results in Brief 
                                                        3
               Background
                                                               6
               MSHA Devotes Substantial Effort to Approving Mine Plans, but 

                 Does Not Provide Adequate Oversight of the Approval Process           11
               MSHA Has Extensive Procedures, Highly Qualified Staff, and
                 Conducts Most Quarterly Inspections as Required, but Its
                 Inspection Process Could Be Improved                                  18
               MSHA Has a Comprehensive Process for Conducting Accident
                 Investigations, but Does Not Fully Utilize It to Prevent Future
                 Accidents                                                             27
               Conclusions                                                              
30
               Recommendations                                                         
31
               Agency Comments and Our Evaluation
                                     32

Appendix I 	   MSHA’s Approval Process for Ventilation and Roof
               Support Plans                                                            36



Appendix II    MSHA’s Approval Process for Impoundment Plans                            37



Appendix III   Comments from the Department of Labor                                    38
               GAO Comments                                                            47

Appendix IV    GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments                                   51
               GAO Contacts                                                            51
               Staff Acknowledgments                                                   51


Tables
               Table 1: Number of Staff Assigned to Each District Office, May 31,
                        2003                                                           11
               Table 2: Quarterly Inspections of Underground Coal Mines, Fiscal
                        Years 1993 to 2002                                             20




               Page i                                               GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
          Table 3: Number of Underground Coal Mine Inspectors Assigned to
                   Each District Office, Percentage Eligible to Retire in the
                   Next 5 Years, and Number of Inspector Trainees in Each
                   District, July 2003                                                              23


Figures
          Figure 1: Number of Coal Mines and Mine Workers, 1993 to 2002                              6
          Figure 2: Fatality Rates for Underground and Surface Coal Mines,
                   1993 to 2002                                                                      8
          Figure 3: Nonfatal Injury Rates for Underground and Surface Coal
                   Mines, 1993 to 2002                                                               9
          Figure 4: Miners Working in “Low Coal” (a Mine No More Than 40”
                   High)                                                                            10
          Figure 5: Percentage of All Citations Issued from 1993 to 2002 for
                   Which Inspectors Did Not Follow Up by the Specified
                   Deadlines                                                                        21
          Figure 6: Contractor Staff as a Percentage of All Workers in
                   Underground Coal Mines                                                           26




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          Page ii                                                         GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
United States General Accounting Office
Washington, DC 20548




                                   September 5, 2003

                                   The Honorable Edward M. Kennedy
                                   Ranking Minority Member
                                   Committee on Health, Education, Labor,
                                    and Pensions
                                   United States Senate

                                   The Honorable Arlen Specter
                                   Chairman
                                   The Honorable Tom Harkin
                                   Ranking Minority Member
                                   Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services,
                                    and Education
                                   Committee on Appropriations
                                   United States Senate

                                   Last year at the Quecreek mine in Pennsylvania, a group of nine coal
                                   miners accidentally broke through to an abandoned mine not shown on
                                   their map and were trapped underground for 3 days. Although they were
                                   eventually rescued, this event and other more tragic mining accidents,
                                   including the explosion in 2001 at a mine in Alabama in which 13 miners
                                   were killed, serve as a reminder that the safety and health of the thousands
                                   of men and women who mine the coal in over 2,000 mines that is used to
                                   produce over half of the country’s electricity must be protected. In passing
                                   the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (the “Mine Act”), Congress
                                   gave much of the responsibility for ensuring the safety and health of mine
                                   workers to the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health
                                   Administration (MSHA). Since that time, the nation’s mines have become
                                   safer—in the past 25 years, both the number and the rate of deaths and
                                   nonfatal injuries have declined. However, despite these trends, mining
                                   remains a dangerous industry. Data collected by MSHA on serious injuries
                                   (those involving days away from work) indicate that mining, particularly
                                   underground coal mining, is one of the most dangerous industries in the
                                   United States.

                                   Under the stringent requirements of the Mine Act, MSHA protects the
                                   health and safety of miners by inspecting each underground coal mine at
                                   least four times a year, citing mine operators for violations of the act or
                                   regulations, ensuring that hazards are quickly corrected, restricting
                                   operations or closing mines for serious violations, and investigating


                                   Page 1                                                 GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
serious mine accidents. In addition, MSHA must approve the initial plans
that mine operators prepare for essential systems that protect mine
workers—such as ventilation and roof support systems—and revisions to
the plans. As part of its review of these plans, MSHA conducts technical
inspections of the mines every 6 months to determine whether mine
operators are following the plans and whether the plans have been
updated. These technical inspections are conducted in addition to the
comprehensive quarterly inspections1 of each mine. MSHA’s headquarters
office is responsible for managing the operations of the agency and
monitoring the activities of the 11 district offices responsible for
protecting safety and health at coal mines nationwide. The district offices
have day-to-day responsibility for reviewing and approving mine plans,
conducting inspections, and investigating mine accidents. To carry out all
of these responsibilities, MSHA received an appropriation for fiscal year
2003 of almost $273 million. This included funding for the approximately
350 inspectors who are responsible for inspecting underground and
surface coal mines and investigating mine accidents and the 210 specialists
who are responsible for reviewing and approving mine plans, conducting
technical inspections of mine plans, and participating in investigations of
mine accidents.

You asked us to provide you with information on MSHA’s efforts by
assessing (1) how well MSHA oversees its process for reviewing and
approving three critical types of mine plans, (2) the extent to which
MSHA’s inspection process helps ensure the safety and health of mine
workers, and (3) the extent to which MSHA uses its accident
investigations process to improve the future safety and health of mine
workers.

We reviewed MSHA’s policies and procedures, interviewed agency
officials, and analyzed data obtained from computer files and documents




1
 Although the Mine Act does not require MSHA to conduct these comprehensive
inspections each quarter—it only requires four annual inspections—MSHA policy is to
inspect each underground coal mine once each quarter, and many MSHA staff refer to them
as quarterly inspections. MSHA also refers to these comprehensive inspections as “AAA”
inspections because this is the code to which time spent on these inspections is charged.




Page 2                                                         GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                   at the agency’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.2 We also reviewed
                   documents and interviewed officials at the National Mine Health and
                   Safety Academy in Beckley, West Virginia (Mine Academy); the Pittsburgh
                   Safety and Health Technology Center in Bruceton, Pennsylvania
                   (Technology Center); and 5 of MSHA’s 11 district offices. In order to
                   include a review of the districts’ accident investigations, we selected
                   districts in which serious accidents had occurred in the past 5 years. We
                   visited several underground coal mines and interviewed mine operators
                   and workers at these mines. In addition, we obtained documents from and
                   interviewed officials with industry associations, including the United Mine
                   Workers of America and the National Mining Association. We conducted
                   our work between November 2002 and July 2003 in accordance with
                   generally accepted government auditing standards.


                   Although MSHA devotes substantial effort to reviewing and approving
Results in Brief   mine plans, it does not provide adequate oversight of the plan approval
                   process. MSHA has extensive procedures for approving mine plans and,
                   for two of the three types of plans we reviewed—ventilation and roof
                   support3 plans—has assigned highly qualified staff to the review and
                   approval process and approves plans submitted by mine operators on a
                   timely basis. However, MSHA headquarters does not monitor completion
                   of the 6-month technical inspections that district offices conduct in order
                   to verify that mine operators are updating the plans as required and
                   following all of the plans’ requirements. As a result, some mines may be
                   operating without adequate ventilation or roof support systems, which
                   could directly affect the safety and health of mine workers. For example,
                   data submitted by the district offices to MSHA headquarters indicate that 5
                   of the 11 districts had not completed technical inspections of the mines’
                   ventilation plans during most quarters of the most recent 5-year period,
                   including several quarters in which they had not completed over 50
                   percent of the inspections. MSHA headquarters also has not provided
                   adequate oversight of district office operations by providing clear
                   guidance on how to coordinate technical inspections with its quarterly


                   2
                    Much of the data we analyzed was provided in a database assembled by MSHA at our
                   request. MSHA provided information from several of its databases on the types of mines,
                   the number of employees and hours worked, the number and types of accidents and
                   injuries, and on the number and types of inspections, violations, and fines. Through
                   interviews and electronic testing, we concluded that the database provided by MSHA was
                   reliable for our work.
                   3
                   MSHA refers to these plans as “roof control” plans.




                   Page 3                                                         GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
inspections of mines. For example, in one of the district offices we visited,
both the specialists who conduct technical inspections and regular
inspectors spent several days inspecting ventilation systems in the
district’s mines during separate inspections. If they had coordinated these
inspections, many hours of duplicate work could have been avoided.
Finally, many of the plans for containing debris produced by mines are not
approved on a timely basis because MSHA lacks qualified staff for
reviewing and approving these complex plans. However, MSHA has
recognized this problem and has developed a plan for hiring additional
staff in order to eliminate delays.

MSHA has extensive procedures for conducting inspections of mines,
highly trained and experienced staff, and conducts most annual mine
inspections as required, but the extent to which the inspection process
helps ensure the safety and health of mine workers is limited by several
factors. First, although MSHA’s procedures for inspecting underground
coal mines are quite comprehensive, some of the procedures are unclear,
resulting in inconsistent interpretations of the procedures by inspectors,
and the procedures are dispersed throughout so many different sources
that they are sometimes hard to find. For example, the definition of what
constitutes a more serious safety and health violation—those classified as
“significant and substantial”—is not clear, and inspectors often differ on
which violations to categorize in this manner. Second, although MSHA
conducts most quarterly inspections as required, MSHA headquarters does
not provide adequate oversight to ensure that the district offices follow
through on unsafe conditions identified during inspections, making sure
that mine operators correct the conditions by the deadlines set by the
inspectors. Using MSHA’s inspections data, we found that, over the past
10 years, almost half of the violations for which MSHA inspectors issued
citations, including almost half of the more serious violations, were not
corrected by the required deadlines. Third, although MSHA has many well
trained and experienced staff, it has no plan for addressing the fact that
about 44 percent of its inspectors will be eligible to retire in the next
5 years. This is especially important because it takes at least 18 months of
classroom and on-the-job training for new inspectors to meet the
minimum requirements of the job. Finally, MSHA does not collect all of the
information it needs to compute fatal and nonfatal injury rates in order to
assess the effectiveness of its enforcement activities because the data it
collects do not include information on contractor staff who work at each
mine. Although the regulations require independent contractors to report
injuries and the number of hours worked by their staff at specific mines,
MSHA issued guidance in 1981 stating that the employment reporting
requirement for certain independent contractors would be limited so that


Page 4                                                 GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
they need only report information in the aggregate for all mines. Since that
time, the percentage of contractor staff has increased from about
5 percent of all underground coal mine workers to about 18 percent, and
the percentage of mine workers represented by contractor staff who
incurred nonfatal injuries in underground coal mines increased steadily
over the most recent 10-year period, 1993 to 2002.

MSHA has a comprehensive process for conducting investigations of mine
accidents, but it does not use the process to the fullest extent possible to
improve the future safety and health of mine workers. MSHA has extensive
procedures for conducting investigations, uses experienced and specially
trained staff to conduct them, and monitors the quality of the
investigations and resulting reports. However, weaknesses in the
databases MSHA uses to track mine accidents and accident investigations
limit its ability to monitor trends in mine hazards and ensure that all
serious accidents are investigated. Specifically, it is difficult to associate
injuries with specific accidents or investigations of these accidents,
monitor trends in the types of hazards that cause injuries, or determine the
extent to which districts are investigating accidents. For example,
although MSHA can identify the total number of individuals who were
injured by roof falls during a specific period, it cannot easily determine
how many accidents were caused by roof falls during the period or how
many of these roof falls were investigated, information that could help the
agency in its efforts to prevent future accidents.

We are making recommendations to the Secretary of Labor to improve
MSHA’s ability to protect the safety and health of miners. These
recommendations should help MSHA provide better oversight over its
operations and use its resources more effectively by improving its mine
plan review and approval, inspections, and accident investigation
processes. In commenting on a draft of this report, MSHA officials did not
comment on our recommendations but disagreed with the findings on
which several of our recommendations are predicated. For example,
MSHA disagreed with our findings regarding district offices’ timely
completion of technical inspections related to mine plans, the agency’s
lack of a plan for addressing the large number of inspectors eligible to
retire in the next 5 years, and weaknesses in the databases used to track
mine accidents and accident investigations. MSHA also provided a few
technical comments and clarifications, which we incorporated in the
report as appropriate. Our summary evaluation of the agency’s comments
is shown on pages 32 and 33. MSHA’s comments and our detailed
responses are provided in full in appendix III.



Page 5                                                 GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
             As of the end of calendar year 2002, the United States had approximately
Background   2,050 coal mines—about 700 underground coal mines and 1,350 surface
             mines. Over the past 10 years, the number of underground and surface
             coal mines in the United States has declined: from approximately 1,300
             underground mines in 1993 to just over 700 mines in 2002, and from over
             2,100 surface mines in 1993 to about 1,300 in 2002. Over that same period,
             the number of mine workers also decreased; from over 62,500
             underground coal mine workers in 1993 to about 45,500 in 2002 and from
             over 74,000 surface coal miners in 1993 to about 62,000 in 2002. As shown
             in figure 1, the number of coal mines and mine workers declined from
             1993 to 2002.

             Figure 1: Number of Coal Mines and Mine Workers, 1993 to 2002

             Miners                                                                                       Mines
             80,000                                                                                       2,500



             70,000

                                                                                                          2,000
             60,000



             50,000
                                                                                                          1,500


             40,000


                                                                                                          1,000
             30,000



             20,000

                                                                                                            500

             10,000



                   0                                                                                           0
                       1993     1994       1995         1996    1997   1998   1999   2000   2001   2002
                       Year


                                Underground coal miners 


                                Surface coal miners 


                                Number of surface coal mines


                                Number of underground coal mines

             Source: GAO analysis of MSHA data.




             Page 6                                                                   GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
These mines produced over 1 billion tons of coal in 2002, about one-third
by underground mines. Despite the decrease in the number of mines and
miners from 1993 to 2002, production has remained constant because of
the increased use of mechanized mining equipment and more efficient
mining techniques. In addition, over the past several decades, coal
production has shifted from primarily underground mines to large surface
mines, including mines in Wyoming and other areas west of the Mississippi
that produce millions of tons of coal annually. The 20 largest coal
companies account for 70 percent of all coal that is produced in the United
States.

Some underground mines do not actively produce coal all year. Some
mines are only operated seasonally because of local weather conditions,
and mine operators often suspend operations at smaller, less cost-effective
mines when the price of coal drops below a certain level. MSHA is
required to inspect inactive mines as long as some miners are still working
at the mine; however, these inspections generally take substantially less
time than inspections of active mines.

Both the fatality rates and the nonfatal injury rates—the number of
fatalities and injuries for every 200,000 hours worked—are higher for
underground coal mines than surface mines. As shown in figure 2, our
analysis of MSHA’s data on fatalities for the 10-year period from 1993 to
2002 indicated that the fatality rates for underground coal mines were
much higher than those for surface mines for this period.




Page 7                                                GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Figure 2: Fatality Rates for Underground and Surface Coal Mines, 1993 to 2002

Fatality ratea
0.08




0.07




0.06




0.05




0.04




0.03




0.02




0.01



0.00
       1993       1994        1995        1996          1997   1998   1999    2000    2001    2002
       Year


                 Fatality rate for underground coal mines

                 Fatality rate for surface coal mines

Source: GAO analysis of MSHA data.
a
Number of fatalities for every 200,000 hours worked.


For 1993 to 2002, nonfatal injury rates for underground coal mines were
higher than those for surface mines, as shown in figure 3.




Page 8                                                                       GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Figure 3: Nonfatal Injury Rates for Underground and Surface Coal Mines, 1993 to
2002

Nonfatal injury ratea

10.0




    8.0




    6.0




    4.0




    2.0




    1.0
          1993    1994       1995        1996        1997      1998   1999    2000    2001    2002
          Year


                 Nonfatal injury rate for underground coal mines

                 Nonfatal injury rate for surface coal mines

Source: GAO analysis of MSHA data.
a
Number of nonfatal injuries for every 200,000 hours worked.


A variety of factors contribute to underground coal mines being more
dangerous than surface mines. One factor is that many underground coal
mines are less than 40 inches high, requiring miners to kneel, crawl, or
crouch in the mine throughout their work shifts. In some cases, the
workspace is so small that the large machinery used to mine the coal takes
up most of the space in the passageway, as shown in figure 4.




Page 9                                                                       GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Figure 4: Miners Working in “Low Coal” (a Mine No More Than 40” High)




Source: MSHA.



Another critical factor that contributes to the hazardous working
conditions is methane gas, which is highly explosive. It is often produced
in large quantities when coal is extracted from underground mines.
Additional factors are the geological conditions in many areas of the
country that make the roofs of mines unstable, the danger posed by fire in
an underground mine, coal and silica dust that can cause silicosis and
pneumoconiosis (black lung disease), and the close proximity of unknown
areas of abandoned mines, which can lead to flooding of the mine, as it did
at the Quecreek mine last year.

MSHA’s Coal Administration’s headquarters is located in Arlington,
Virginia, and 8 of its 11 district offices are located in the eastern United
States near coal seams located in or near the Appalachian Mountains. As
shown in table 1, as of May 2003, MSHA’s 11 districts had a total of 1,017
staff who were responsible for protecting the safety and health of mine
workers nationwide, including 283 inspectors and 200 specialists assigned
specifically to underground coal mines. In addition to the district office
staff, MSHA had 38 headquarters staff members assigned to coal mine
safety and health, for a total of 1,055 staff.



Page 10                                                  GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Table 1: Number of Staff Assigned to Each District Office, May 31, 2003

                                                                                                               District office
                                                            One          Two        Three        Four   Five     Six   Seven Eight    Nine    Ten   Eleven    Total
 Managers                                                       7           16           16        24    18       18       17    11    14      12        7     160
 Underground inspectors                                         5           30           22        61    23       44       30    20    27      14        7     283
 Underground specialists                                        8           21           19        31    21       14       33    14    15      11       13     200
 Surface inspectors                                             7           10             6       9      7       11       10     2     5       2        2       71
 Surface specialists                                            0             0            2       4      0        2         1    0     0       1        0       10
 Trainees                                                       0             0            8        5    11        7         5    2     1       0        5       44
 Subtotal-enforcement staff                                   20            61           57      110     62       78       79    38    48      28       27     608
 Technical staff                                                1             0            2        6     5        4         6    1     2       2        2       31
 Enforcement support                                            1             2            3        9     2        3         2    2     1       0        0       25
 Office support                                                 4           15           13        24    14       16       17    10     3       6        3     125
 Administrative support                                         3             5            3        5     5        6         5    5    14       3        4       58
 Subtotal-non-enforcement                                       9           22           21        44    26       29       30    18    20      11        9     239
 Othera                                                         0             0            2        0     2        3         1    1     0       1        0       10
 Total                                                         36           99           96       178   108      128      127    68    82      52       43    1,017
Source: Monthly staffing report dated May 31, 2003, obtained from MSHA headquarters officials.
                                                                  a
                                                                    “Other” includes students and part-time employees.




                                                                  MSHA has extensive procedures and highly qualified staff for approving
MSHA Devotes                                                      two of the three types of plans we reviewed—ventilation and roof support
Substantial Effort to                                             plans—and most of these plans are reviewed and approved on a timely
                                                                  basis. However, MSHA headquarters does not adequately monitor
Approving Mine                                                    completion of 6-month technical inspections conducted as part of the
Plans, but Does Not                                               districts’ review of ventilation and roof support plans; data maintained by
                                                                  the district offices indicate that some districts are not completing these
Provide Adequate                                                  inspections in a timely manner. In addition, MSHA headquarters has not
Oversight of the                                                  provided clear guidance to the districts on coordinating technical
Approval Process                                                  inspections related to mine plans with quarterly inspections of
                                                                  underground coal mines in order to avoid duplication of effort by district
                                                                  staff. Finally, staffing shortages have prevented MSHA from reviewing and
                                                                  approving plans for containing debris produced by the mines on a timely
                                                                  basis.




                                                                  Page 11                                                                    GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
MSHA Has Extensive          MSHA has extensive procedures for approving ventilation and roof
Procedures and Highly       support plans. The Mine Act and its implementing regulations contain
Qualified Staff for         many of the requirements for approving ventilation and roof support plans.
                            Additional procedures are contained in MSHA’s Program Policy Manual,
Approving Ventilation and   ventilation and roof support plan approval procedures handbooks, and the
Roof Support Plans          standard operating procedures for each district office. These procedures
                            provide specific steps for approving the ventilation and roof support plans
                            submitted by mine operators to MSHA for approval. Mine operators are
                            required to submit their initial ventilation and roof support plans to the
                            MSHA district in which the mine is located for approval prior to operating
                            a mine and are required to submit revised plans to the district whenever
                            significant changes are made to the plans. The district managers are
                            ultimately responsible for approving ventilation and roof support plans
                            submitted to their districts. Generally, districts are required to approve
                            ventilation and roof support plans within 45 days of receipt unless
                            problems are found that must be resolved. In some of the districts we
                            visited, state mine agencies were also required to approve the mine plans.
                            See appendix I for additional information on MSHA’s approval process for
                            ventilation and roof support plans.

                            Specialists assigned to each district office to review and approve mine
                            plans are generally highly trained and experienced. MSHA currently has
                            200 underground specialists assigned to its 11 district offices who review
                            ventilation, roof support, and other types of mine plans. A majority of the
                            specialists assigned to underground mines have at least 5 years of
                            experience in mining and were former inspectors of underground coal
                            mines. As such, they receive 25 weeks of underground coal mine inspector
                            training at the Mine Academy as well as on-the-job training, which
                            qualifies them to conduct inspections and write citations for safety and
                            health violations. In addition, most specialists have several years of
                            experience as inspectors before applying for specialist positions. Each
                            specialist is also required to take a minimum of 2 weeks of training in mine
                            safety and health, such as specialized training on ventilation or roof
                            support systems, every 2 years.

                            Most district offices approve ventilation and roof support plans within the
                            required 45-day period. District offices track the review and approval of
                            ventilation and roof support plans, noting the date mine operators submit
                            the plans to the district, the dates plans are assigned to specialists for
                            review, and the dates the plans are approved. We reviewed this
                            information for the most recent 5-year period, 1998 to 2002, and found that
                            most districts approve these plans on a timely basis.



                            Page 12                                               GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
MSHA Does Not Ensure       MSHA headquarters does not adequately monitor completion of 6-month
Districts Are Completing   technical inspections of ventilation and roof support plans by the district
Technical Inspections of   offices. Districts conduct technical inspections of the ventilation and roof
                           support plans at least once every 6 months in order to ensure that mine
Mine Plans                 operators are updating the plans to reflect changes in the ventilation and
                           roof support systems and following the requirements of the plans. The
                           specialists who review the mine plans during the approval process also
                           conduct many of these technical inspections.

                           Our analysis of the information submitted by the district offices to MSHA
                           headquarters on the timeliness of 6-month technical inspections of mines’
                           ventilation and roof support plans for the most recent 5-year period, 1998
                           to 2002, indicated that several districts had not completed the inspections
                           as required by agency procedures.4 The data showed that, although 6 of
                           MSHA’s 11 district offices completed the 6-month technical inspections of
                           ventilation plans for most quarters of the 5-year period, 5 districts did not,
                           and 2 districts did not complete these inspections during any quarter of
                           the 5-year period.5 In addition, our analysis of the data submitted by the
                           district offices to MSHA headquarters on technical inspections related to
                           roof support plans for the same period showed that 3 of the 11 districts
                           had not completed these inspections during most quarters of the 5-year
                           period.

                           As a result of districts not completing these 6-month technical inspections
                           in a timely manner, some mines may be operating without adequate
                           ventilation or roof support systems. Technical inspections of the mines’
                           ventilation and roof support plans are essential in ensuring adequate
                           airflow and controlling the accumulation of dust particles in underground



                           4
                            We analyzed the timeliness of these inspections by reviewing reports prepared by the
                           district offices from information in the databases they use to track the timeliness of the
                           plan approval process and related technical inspections (the Mine Plan Approval System).
                           Follow up telephone conversations with district officials indicated that, while some of the
                           data showing districts had not completed their 6-month technical inspections were
                           accurate, other data were not. The officials told us that, in some cases, the data in their
                           systems were not current and that the technical inspections had been completed.
                           Therefore, while we can confidently state that not every district is completing its 6-month
                           technical inspections in a timely manner, the reports—and the underlying data on which
                           they are based—do not enable us to give an exact statement of the degree to which they
                           did not complete the inspections as required.
                           5
                            Although district offices conduct technical inspections of the ventilation and roof support
                           systems every 6 months, they conduct inspections throughout the year and collect and
                           report data on the completion of these inspections for each quarter of the year.




                           Page 13                                                           GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
coal mines and that the roofs are adequately supported. Inadequate
ventilation systems or roof support systems can directly affect the safety
and health of mine workers. For example, our review of MSHA’s data on
fatalities at underground coal mines from 1998 to 2002 showed that
problems related to ventilation and roof support systems accounted for
high proportions of fatalities in underground coal mines. For this 5-year
period, ignitions or explosions from excessive gas or coal dust accounted
for the third largest percentage of all fatalities, 14 percent, and roof falls
accounted for the largest percentage, 34 percent.

Officials at MSHA headquarters initially were not aware that these
inspections had not all been completed in a timely manner and contacted
the district offices to find out why. We also contacted several districts and,
according to district officials, all technical inspections related to the
mines’ ventilation and roof support plans had been conducted, but not all
of the inspections were completed within the 6-month time frame. In
addition, officials in the 5 districts in which the data indicated that
technical inspections had not been completed in almost every quarter of
the 5-year period we reviewed—districts 1, 2, 4, 9, and 10—told us that
information in their databases was not accurate and that most inspections
had been completed within the 6-month time frame. However, they were
not able to explain why they had not corrected the information in their
databases on completion of the 6-month technical inspections.

Headquarters officials told us that ensuring the timely completion of
technical inspections would be included in one of the agency’s new
initiatives. As part of this initiative, which was started in June 2003,
individuals from MSHA’s Safety Division have been assigned to each one
of the 11 district offices and given responsibility for monitoring the
district’s performance. These monitoring efforts include ensuring that the
district is conducting all inspections, tracking trends in the number and
rates of injuries and fatalities at the district’s mines, and reviewing the
number and types of safety and health violations cited. In addition, the
Administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health told us that MSHA plans to
incorporate the databases the districts use to track the completion of
6-month technical inspections of ventilation and roof control plans into
MSHA’s overall data systems as part of its agencywide upgrade of MSHA’s
databases. This part of the upgrade is currently planned for 2006.




Page 14                                                  GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
MSHA Has Not Provided         MSHA headquarters has not provided clear guidance to its district offices
Clear Guidance to Districts   on coordinating technical inspections of mine plans with quarterly
on Coordinating               inspections of underground coal mines in order to avoid duplication of
                              effort by district staff. Specialists who conduct on-site technical
Inspections                   inspections of underground coal mines related to mine plans often spend
                              several days inspecting the mines’ ventilation and roof support systems.
                              For example, a ventilation specialist might spend several days walking
                              through the 30 to 50 miles of airways at large mines to test whether an
                              adequate amount of air is passing through the ventilation system and
                              ensure that the passageways are not blocked. Inspectors are required to
                              walk through these same airways during each quarterly inspection of the
                              mine. They may, however, rely on the work of specialists who conduct the
                              technical inspections, if the specialists coordinate their inspections with
                              the inspectors and charge their time to the quarterly inspections. However,
                              in 2 of the 5 districts we visited, we found that, in some instances,
                              specialists and inspectors were duplicating each other’s work, resulting in
                              an inefficient use of MSHA’s resources. In one of these districts, because
                              district management prohibited specialists from charging their time to
                              quarterly inspections, inspectors could not count the time spent by
                              specialists examining certain areas of the mines that inspectors are
                              required to examine as part of their quarterly inspections, such as
                              ventilation systems. Therefore, in this district, inspectors were required to
                              examine the same areas of the mines even when a specialist had recently
                              examined them. If the district had allowed the specialists to coordinate
                              with the inspectors and charge the time they spent examining these
                              systems to the quarterly inspections as in other districts, the inspectors
                              would not have been required to examine these same systems again during
                              the quarterly inspection. District officials told us it was their
                              understanding that MSHA’s procedures prohibited them from charging
                              specialists’ time to quarterly inspections, although MSHA headquarters
                              officials told us there was no such prohibition.

                              MSHA headquarters officials told us they have no procedures that require
                              specialists to coordinate technical inspections with quarterly inspections
                              in order to avoid duplication. They agreed that the policies and procedures
                              governing whether specialists may charge their time to quarterly
                              inspections are unclear and told us they plan to clarify the procedures
                              soon. In the interim, MSHA headquarters issued a memorandum to the
                              district offices in June 2003 encouraging them to better coordinate
                              inspections by specialists and inspectors.




                              Page 15                                                GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
MSHA Does Not Approve       MSHA is responsible for approving plans for containing mine debris, called
Plans for Containing Mine   impoundment plans.6 Many of these plans are extremely complex and
Debris on a Timely Basis    require highly qualified engineers who are familiar with technical areas
                            such as dam building techniques, hydrology, and soil conditions. Failure of
                            an impoundment can be devastating to nearby communities, which may be
                            flooded with water and sludge, and to the environment, affecting streams
                            and water supplies for years afterwards. Because of the potential for
                            failure, such as the impoundment dam failure in 1972 in Buffalo Creek,
                            West Virginia, in which 125 people were killed and 500 homes were
                            destroyed,7 MSHA is extremely careful about approving impoundment
                            plans. MSHA has responsibility for approximately 600 coal impoundments.

                            All but one of MSHA’s district offices send most of their mines’
                            impoundment plans to the Mine Waste and Geotechnical Engineering
                            Division of MSHA’s Safety and Health Technology Center, which the
                            agency established in 1973 to provide district offices with the technical
                            expertise needed to review impoundment plans. District staff review and
                            approve only plans that are less complex or contain only minor
                            modifications of existing impoundments. The one district that reviews its
                            own impoundment plans has a professional engineer with the
                            qualifications and experience needed to review such plans. See appendix
                            II for additional information on the process for reviewing and approving
                            impoundment plans.

                            Many impoundment plans sent to the Technology Center are not approved
                            on a timely basis because MSHA does not have an adequate number of
                            technical staff needed to review these complex plans. The Technology
                            Center has historically faced staffing shortages that affect its ability to
                            approve impoundment plans on a timely basis. As a result, the backlog of
                            impoundment plans has grown—it now takes MSHA 2 to 3 years to
                            approve most plans and has taken as long as 5 years to approve some
                            plans.8 In an effort to address the growing backlog, MSHA developed an
                            expedited process for reviewing and approving impoundment plans in



                            6
                             MSHA refers to the large embankment dams built to contain debris produced by the mines
                            (debris that consists mainly of water, rock, and coal) as “impoundments.”
                            7
                            The Bureau of Mines had responsibility for overseeing impoundments at the time of the
                            Buffalo Creek disaster.
                            8
                             These delays do not, for the most part, affect mines’ operations because most plans
                            submitted to MSHA for approval are for modifications to existing impoundments at mines
                            that already have an impoundment in place.




                            Page 16                                                        GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
order to avoid disruption of the mines’ operations. This system, however,
added time to the approval process for plans that were not part of the
expedited process. In addition, because so many plans were expedited, a
backlog of expedited plans developed. For example, the number of regular
(not expedited) impoundment plans pending review almost doubled
during the 3-year period from 1998 to 2001, from 124 plans to 245. In 2000,
when the expedited system was implemented, there were 69 expedited
plans pending review. By the following year, there were 148 expedited
plans waiting to be reviewed. During this period, engineers who left the
Technology Center were not always replaced because, according to MSHA
officials, the agency has had difficulty attracting civil engineers and
certified professional engineers at the salary levels offered.

MSHA conducted two reviews of its procedures for approving
impoundment plans and has begun to take steps for improving the
process. The most recent review identified several weaknesses in the
procedures, including the need for the agency to develop guidance for
determining which impoundment plans should receive expedited review
as well as evaluating the staffing levels needed to ensure timely and
complete review of the plans.9 MSHA officials acknowledged that the
delays in the review and approval of impoundment plans have been a
problem for a number of years. However, the officials told us that they
have recently taken a number of steps to alleviate these delays. First, they
are in the process of hiring additional engineers for the Technology Center
to review impoundment plans and provide assistance to staff in district
offices. Second, to reduce the backlog of plans, the Administrator for Coal
Mine Safety and Health sent a memorandum to all district managers in
January 2003 encouraging them to hire specialists with experience in civil
engineering and have them review less complex impoundment plans
instead of sending them to the Technology Center for review. Finally,
MSHA has formed a committee to rewrite the Impoundment Inspection
Handbook, which the agency plans to issue in March 2004. According to
MSHA headquarters officials, these new procedures will bring more
uniformity to the review and inspection process and will eliminate a
number of outdated and confusing procedures and policies. The
committee is also tasked with developing a system for rating the
complexity of impoundment plans. This rating system will establish


9
 In October 2000, the floor of an impoundment for a mine in Martin County, Kentucky,
broke through sealed underground areas of the mine, causing a major coal waste spill in
the surrounding community. Although the impoundment dam did not fail, this event
prompted MSHA to review its processes for approving all impoundment plans.




Page 17                                                         GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                            criteria for districts to use in deciding which impoundment plans to review
                            in the district and which ones to send to the Technology Center for review.
                            Agency officials said they expect to have this rating system in place no
                            later than March 2004.


                            Although MSHA’s procedures for conducting inspections of underground
MSHA Has Extensive          coal mines are comprehensive, its inspectors are highly qualified, and it
Procedures, Highly          conducts almost all quarterly inspections as required by MSHA policy, the
                            inspection process could be improved in a number of ways. Although
Qualified Staff, and        MSHA has extensive inspection procedures, some of them are unclear,
Conducts Most               while others are difficult to locate because they are contained in so many
                            different sources. In addition, although MSHA conducted over 96 percent
Quarterly Inspections       of required quarterly inspections each year over the past 10 years, MSHA
as Required, but Its        headquarters does not provide adequate oversight to ensure that its
Inspection Process          district offices follow through to make sure that unsafe conditions
                            identified during inspections are corrected. And, although MSHA has
Could Be Improved           highly qualified inspectors, it has no plan for addressing the fact that
                            44 percent of them will be eligible to retire in the next 5 years. Finally,
                            MSHA does not collect all of the information it needs to assess the
                            effectiveness of its enforcement efforts because it does not collect data on
                            independent contractor staff who work at each mine.


MSHA Has Extensive          MSHA has extensive procedures for inspecting mines. The two major
Procedures for Inspecting   sources of inspection procedures are the policy manual and the inspection
Mines, but Some             handbook. In addition, MSHA issues many ad hoc procedures in formats
                            such as bulletins and memorandums. MSHA’s procedures require
Procedures Are Unclear      inspectors to follow many different steps in conducting quarterly
                            inspections of mines. These steps include, among many others, (1) walking
                            all of the air passages in the mine which, in a large mine, can total over
                            50 miles in length; (2) taking samples of the mine environment, including
                            air, dust, and noise levels; (3) observing miners’ work habits; and
                            (4) reviewing the mine operators’ records of their own daily inspections of
                            the mine. Inspectors are also required to issue citations for any violations
                            of the law, health or safety standards, rules, orders, or regulations they
                            identify during inspections.

                            Although MSHA has extensive inspection procedures, some of them are
                            unclear and they are located in so many different sources that they can be
                            difficult to find. Some procedures do not clearly specify the criteria
                            inspectors should use in citing violations. For example, several district
                            officials in two of the districts we visited told us that the lack of specific


                            Page 18                                                 GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                            criteria for floating coal dust10 makes it difficult to determine what is an
                            allowable level. As a result, mine inspectors must rely on their own
                            experience and personal opinion to determine if the accumulation of
                            floating coal dust is a safety hazard that constitutes a violation. According
                            to some of the inspectors we interviewed, this has led, in some cases, to
                            inconsistencies in inspectors’ interpretations of the procedures—some
                            inspectors have cited violations for levels of floating coal dust that have
                            not brought citations from other inspectors. In addition, the inspection
                            procedures are located in so many different handbooks, manuals, policy
                            bulletins, policy letters, and memorandums that it can be difficult for
                            inspectors to make sure that they are using the most recent guidance and
                            procedures.

                            MSHA headquarters officials told us that they are working to clarify the
                            agency’s procedures and consolidate the number of sources in which they
                            are located. For example, MSHA established a committee in February 2003
                            to clarify and consolidate its inspection procedures, including developing
                            a checklist for inspections that will be available, along with the
                            procedures, to inspectors on their portable computers. These online
                            procedures will provide a single source of guidance for all types of coal
                            mine inspections. MSHA plans to have these new online inspection
                            procedures completed by late 2003.


MSHA Conducts Most          MSHA’s data on its quarterly inspection completion rates indicates that, of
Quarterly Inspections as    the over 2,000 quarterly inspections district offices are required to conduct
Required, but Does Not      each year, they completed over 96 percent each year from fiscal year 1993
                            to 2002, as shown in table 2.
Always Follow Through to
Ensure Unsafe Conditions
Identified During
Inspections are Corrected




                            10
                             MSHA refers to this as “float” coal dust. It is extremely combustible and can cause
                            explosions in underground coal mines.




                            Page 19                                                           GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Table 2: Quarterly Inspections of Underground Coal Mines, Fiscal Years 1993 to 2002

                                                   1993    1994    1995      1996      1997      1998      1999        2000     2001    2002
 Number of quarterly inspections required         4,216   3,927    3,549    3,195     3,102     2,957     2,513        2,641   2,714   2,519
 Number of quarterly inspections completed        4,211   3,780    3,420    3,148     3,066     2,928     2,485        2,613   2,638   2,495
 Percent completed                                99.9%   96.3%   96.4%     98.5%     98.8%     99.0%    98.9%     98.9%       97.2%   99.0%
Source: MSHA.
                                             a
                                             Note: We were not able to independently verify MSHA’s completion rates.


                                             Although MSHA conducts almost all of the quarterly inspections as
                                             required, MSHA headquarters does not monitor district office performance
                                             to ensure that inspectors are following up with mine operators to
                                             determine that unsafe conditions identified during inspections have been
                                             corrected. During inspections of mines, MSHA’s inspectors set deadlines
                                             for the mine operators to correct the safety and health hazards violations
                                             identified. The deadlines vary based on a number of factors—including the
                                             degree of danger to miners affected by the violation—and range from
                                             15 minutes from the time the inspector writes the citation to 27 days
                                             afterwards. Deadlines can be a short as 15 minutes because some of the
                                             hazards have the potential to quickly lead to serious injuries. MSHA’s
                                             procedures require inspectors to follow up with mine operators within the
                                             deadline they set or to extend the deadline. Inspectors may extend the
                                             deadlines under certain circumstances, such as when a mine has
                                             temporarily shut down its operations or when a mine operator is unable to
                                             obtain a part needed to correct a violation cited for a piece of equipment.
                                             MSHA tracks all citations, deadlines for correction, and extensions of
                                             deadlines in its Coal Management Information System.

                                             Our analysis of MSHA’s data for the most recent 10-year period, 1993 to
                                             2002, indicated that, for almost half—48 percent—of the 536,966 citations
                                             for which a deadline was established, inspectors did not follow up in a
                                             timely manner to make sure mine operators had corrected the hazards.11
                                             However, as shown in figure 5, of the 48 percent of the citations for which
                                             the inspectors did not follow up in a timely manner, they followed up on
                                             many citations within 4 days of the deadline and, for all but 11 percent of
                                             the citations, they followed up in less than two weeks to verify that the
                                             mine operators had corrected the hazards identified during inspections.


                                             11
                                               MSHA does not set a deadline for correction of every type of violation. For example,
                                             inspectors are not required to set a deadline for an order in which the mine is closed due to
                                             “imminent danger.”




                                             Page 20                                                              GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Figure 5: Percentage of All Citations Issued from 1993 to 2002 for Which Inspectors
Did Not Follow Up by the Specified Deadlines



                                                              22%
                                                              Follow-up completed
                                                              within 4 days after
                             48% •   Follow-up not            the deadline
                                     completed by             15%
         52%
          •                          the deadline             Follow-up completed
                                                              within 13 days after
                                                              the deadline
                                                              11%
                                                              Follow-up not
                                     Follow-up                completed until 14 or
                                     completed by             more days after
                                     the deadline             the deadline
Source: GAO analysis of MSHA data.



Moreover, the more serious type of violations—“significant and
substantial” (S&S) violations—accounted for a significant proportion of
the citations for which inspectors did not follow up by the deadlines. For
the over 235,447 citations written for S&S violations from 1993 to 2002 for
which a deadline was specified, inspectors did not follow up on more than
48 percent of the citations by the deadline. However, inspectors followed
up on all but about 10 percent of the citations for S&S violations within
less than 14 days of the deadline.

MSHA headquarters and district officials told us that there are many
different reasons why inspectors may not follow up by the deadlines
specified in their citations. One of these, according to several district
officials, is scheduling conflicts that prevent inspectors from visiting the
mine within the specified deadline. In addition, there are circumstances in
which inspectors are not able to follow up, such as when a mine operator
suspends a mine’s operations. However, in these instances, the inspector
should update the information in the database to extend the deadline.

District officials we interviewed said that they are tracking the number of
citations for which inspectors have not followed up by the deadlines and
are taking steps to reduce this number. For example, officials in District 6
told us that they are revising the process of scheduling mine visits to
improve the timeliness of follow up. In addition, MSHA headquarters
officials said that tracking the number of citations on which inspectors



Page 21                                                     GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                             have not followed up in a timely manner in each district office is part of
                             their new initiative to better monitor district office performance that
                             began in June 2003.

                             We did not review the quality of MSHA’s quarterly inspections. Some
                             inspectors and mine operators we interviewed at 2 of the 5 district offices
                             we visited, as well as officials from the United Mine Workers of America
                             headquarters, told us that staffing shortages sometimes cause MSHA to
                             rush its inspections at the end of the quarter. For example, inspectors and
                             a mine operator in one district told us that, last year, some of the quarterly
                             inspections were not completed until the end of the quarter and that, in
                             some cases, MSHA sent a large number of inspectors to a few of the
                             district’s mines at the end of the quarter in order to complete the
                             inspections as required. MSHA headquarters officials said they were in the
                             process of balancing the workloads of the district offices in order to
                             address some of these staffing shortages. They also have begun hiring
                             additional inspectors for some districts.


MSHA Has Highly Trained      MSHA’s mine inspectors are highly trained and experienced. Under the
and Experienced Staff, but   Mine Act, inspectors are required to have, whenever possible, 5 years of
Lacks a Plan for Replacing   practical mining experience before being hired. Newly hired inspectors
                             receive a minimum of 18 months of classroom and on-the-job training
the Large Number of          before qualifying to conduct inspections on their own. Classroom training
Inspectors Who May Soon      for new mine inspectors includes 25 weeks of instruction at MSHA’s Mine
Retire                       Academy provided in 3- and 4-week segments. The classroom training
                             covers a wide range of topics, from inspecting mine equipment to
                             conducting tests of air quality. In between attending classes at the Mine
                             Academy, new inspectors accompany experienced inspectors on mine
                             inspections. Once they have completed their training and are certified by
                             the district office to which they are assigned—a process that takes, on
                             average, 18 to 24 months according to MSHA officials—inspectors receive
                             their Authorized Representative credentials indicating that they are
                             certified underground Coal Mine Inspectors and are allowed to write
                             citations. In addition to their initial training, inspectors are required to
                             take at least 2 weeks of refresher training every 2 years. Finally, MSHA’s
                             current underground coal mine inspectors have been with the agency, on
                             average, for over 18 years and most had a number of years of mining
                             experience prior to joining MSHA. For example, each of the four
                             inspectors we interviewed in one of the districts we visited had at least 10
                             years of mining experience prior to joining MSHA and had from 3 to 16
                             years’ experience inspecting mines.



                             Page 22                                                 GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                                              Although many of MSHA’s highly trained and experienced underground
                                              coal mine inspectors will be eligible to retire within the next 5 years, and
                                              the agency’s historic attrition rates indicate that many of them will actually
                                              retire, the agency has not developed a plan for replacing these inspectors.
                                              As shown in table 3, about 44 percent of MSHA’s inspectors will be eligible
                                              to retire in the next 5 years and, in 2 districts, a much larger proportion
                                              will be eligible to retire. The table also shows that districts have fewer
                                              inspector trainees on board than vacancies that will need to be filled when
                                              inspectors retire. MSHA’s historic attrition data show that half of the
                                              individuals who are eligible for retirement actually retire within 1 year of
                                              the date they are eligible and 85 percent retire within 4 years.

Table 3: Number of Underground Coal Mine Inspectors Assigned to Each District Office, Percentage Eligible to Retire in the
Next 5 Years, and Number of Inspector Trainees in Each District, July 2003

                                                                                  District office
                                              One       Two Three   Four   Five    Six Seven Eight        Nine   Ten Eleven   Total
 Number of underground coal mine
 inspectors                                      5       30    22     61    23      43       30      20    27     14      7    282
 Number of inspectors eligible to retire in
 the next 5 years                                1       23    19     18    11      14       13       6     9      7      2    123
 Percent eligible to retire within 5 years    20%       77%   86%   30%    48%    33%      43%      30%   33%    50%   29%    44%
 Number of underground inspector 

 trainees                                        0        0     6      3     7        5        5      0     0      0      3     29
                                                                                                                                 

Source: MSHA.

                                              MSHA headquarters officials also told us that it will be difficult for them to
                                              quickly hire and train replacements for the inspectors who retire. In
                                              addition to the fact that it takes at least 18 months to train each new
                                              inspector, it takes the agency several months from the date an individual
                                              retires to advertise and fill each vacant position. As a result of losing these
                                              inspectors, MSHA may find it difficult to maintain its current level of
                                              enforcement activity, including completing all quarterly inspections of
                                              underground coal mines.

                                              MSHA headquarters and district officials told us that they do not have a
                                              plan that addresses the potential staffing shortages among its inspection
                                              staff because, although they recognize that the shortages may affect their
                                              ability to complete all required inspections, they cannot fill vacancies until
                                              individuals actually retire, so their options are limited.




                                              Page 23                                                       GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                              However, MSHA is not making full use of available human capital
                              flexibilities to streamline its hiring procedures or retain the services of
                              inspectors.12 For example, it is not using the direct-hire authority available
                              to federal agencies that would allow the agency to choose applicants
                              directly for inspector positions.13 Furthermore, use of a category-based
                              rating and selection procedure could help MSHA increase the number of
                              qualified applicants for its inspector positions. In addition, MSHA is not
                              using retention allowances to keep employees with specialized skills,
                              including inspectors, who are critical to accomplishing the agency’s
                              mission. Finally, MSHA has not formally reviewed its hiring process,
                              including identifying internal deficiencies, such as problems with its
                              process for assessing the quality of applicants that causes delays in hiring
                              new inspectors. MSHA headquarters officials told us, however, that they
                              are considering conducting a review of their hiring system.


MSHA Does Not Collect         MSHA does not collect all of the information on staff employed by
Data on Independent           independent contractors14 who work in underground coal mines needed to
Contractor Staff Needed to    assess the effectiveness of its enforcement activities. The regulations
                              implementing the Mine Act require mine operators, including independent
Assess the Effectiveness of   contractors, to report the number of hours worked by staff at specific
Its Enforcement Activities    mines as well as injuries received during the performance of that work.
                              However, MSHA issued a memorandum in 1981 that limited the reporting
                              requirements for independent contractors who performed all but nine
                              types of services in “high hazard activities,” including mining coal, and




                              12
                               Human capital flexibilities represent the policies and practices that an agency has the
                              authority to implement, in managing its workforce, to accomplish its mission and goals. We
                              recently reported on the key practices agencies should use when implementing human
                              capital flexibilities. See U.S. General Accounting Office, Human Capital: Effective Use of
                              Flexibilities Can Assist Agencies in Managing Their Workforces, GAO-03-2 (Washington,
                              D.C.: Dec. 6, 2002).
                              13
                               Direct hire authority, which was authorized in the Homeland Security Act of 2002,
                              provides agencies with the authority to appoint candidates directly to jobs for which the
                              Office of Personnel Management has determined that there is a severe shortage of
                              candidates or a critical hiring need.
                              14
                               The Mine Act defines a mine operator to include independent contractors that perform
                              services or construction at a mine.




                              Page 24                                                           GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
exempted other independent contractors completely.15 As a result, MSHA
only collects aggregate information from independent contractors that
engage in these hazardous activities. It collects data on the number of
hours worked by their staff at all mines, but does not collect this
information for contractor staff at specific mines. MSHA headquarters
officials told us the agency exempted independent contractors from these
reporting requirements in order to reduce the regulatory burden on them
and because, at the time the memorandum was issued, independent
contractor staff represented a relatively small proportion of all coal
miners.

However, because MSHA does not collect information on the hours
worked by contractor staff who mine coal in each underground coal mine,
it cannot calculate accurate fatality or nonfatal injury rates for mines that
use contractor staff to mine coal—rates used to evaluate the effectiveness
of its enforcement efforts.16 Although MSHA can determine whether it is
meeting these goals for all underground coal mines as a whole, it cannot
determine whether it is meeting its goals for specific mines. In addition,
MSHA cannot track trends in fatal or nonfatal injury rates at mines that
use contractor staff to mine coal. The fact that MSHA is not tracking the
number of independent contractor staff who work in each mine has
become more important in recent years, because the proportion of miners
who work for independent contractors has grown significantly since 1981,
when they represented only 5 percent of all mine workers. Our analysis of
MSHA’s data on workers in underground coal mines shows that the
percentage of underground coal miners who work for independent
contractors increased from 13 percent in 1993 to 18 percent in 2002, as
shown in figure 6, and the percentage who incurred nonfatal injuries also
increased over this period.



15
  MSHA’s memorandum exempted all independent contractors from some of the reporting
requirements of the Mine Act except those whose staff provide services in one of the
following nine high hazard activities: (1) mine development, including shaft and slope
sinking; (2) construction or reconstruction of mine facilities; (3) demolition of mine
facilities; (4) construction of dams; (5) excavation or earthmoving activities involving
mobile equipment; (6) equipment installation, such as crushers and mills; (7) equipment
service or repair of equipment on mine property for a period exceeding 5 consecutive days
at a particular mine; (8) material handling within mine property, including haulage of coal,
ore, and refuse, unless for the sole purpose of direct removal from or delivery to mine
property; and (9) drilling and blasting. Procedures later issued by MSHA clarifying these
requirements stated that mining coal was included in activity (8).
16
 Two of MSHA’s key performance goals are to reduce the fatal injury rate and the rate of
all injuries in coal mines.



Page 25                                                           GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Figure 6: Contractor Staff as a Percentage of All Workers in Underground Coal
Mines
Percent
25




20




15




10




 5




 0
     1993       1994         1995        1996         1997        1998      1999          2000    2001    2002
      Year


                 Contractors as a percentage of all mine workers 


                 Contractor fatalities as a percentage of all fatalities


                 Contractor nonfatal injuries as a percentage of all nonfatal injuries

Source: GAO analysis of MSHA data.




To address these concerns, MSHA established a task group that was
directed to work with the members of the mining community17 to
(l) determine how to best identify and collect data on independent
contractor staff and (2) develop an enforcement policy for independent
contractors. MSHA headquarters officials said the task group is in the
process of drafting an action plan but is having difficulty identifying
independent contractors because the agency has issued a number of
duplicate identification numbers to these contractors. In addition, MSHA
headquarters officials told us that obtaining information on the hours



17
  The mining community is a commonly used term for referring to the various types of
entities and individuals involved in mining. It can include MSHA enforcement personnel,
state mining agency personnel, mine operators, miners and labor organizations, special
interest groups, and mining equipment manufacturers.




Page 26                                                                                   GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                            worked by contractor staff at specific mines will be difficult because these
                            workers often work at more than one mine.


                            MSHA’s process for conducting accident investigations is comprehensive,
MSHA Has a                  but the agency does not use its investigations to the fullest extent to
Comprehensive               improve the future safety of mine workers. MSHA has detailed policies and
                            rigorous requirements for how investigations must be conducted and
Process for                 reported and uses a number of mechanisms to monitor the quality of its
Conducting Accident         accident investigations process. However, weaknesses in its databases
                            make it difficult for MSHA to track key data on mine hazards and
Investigations, but         potentially useful indicators of its own performance.
Does Not Fully Utilize
It to Prevent Future
Accidents

MSHA’s Polices and          MSHA has extensive policies and procedures for conducting accident
Procedures for Conducting   investigations. These policies and procedures are contained in the Mine
Accident Investigations     Act and its implementing regulations, the Accident Investigations
                            Handbook, policy documents, and a training manual. They provide
Are Extensive               guidance for determining when to conduct investigations, who should
                            conduct them, how they should be conducted, and how to report the
                            results. MSHA is required to investigate all accidents involving fatalities
                            and may also investigate nonfatal accidents. While the decisions regarding
                            whether to conduct investigations of most accidents are made at the
                            district level, investigations of high-profile accidents, such as those
                            involving more than two fatalities and mine emergencies, are handled by
                            MSHA’s headquarters office.18 The primary objective of an accident
                            investigation, as stated in the investigation handbook, is “to determine the
                            root cause(s) of the mine accident and to utilize and share this information
                            with the mining community and others for the purpose of preventing
                            similar occurrences.” Other purposes of investigations are to determine
                            whether any violations of the Mine Act or its implementing regulations
                            contributed to the accident and to help formulate and assess MSHA’s
                            health and safety standards.




                            18
                              Although the investigation handbook states that MSHA headquarters is responsible for
                            investigations of mine emergencies, it does not define what constitutes a mine emergency.




                            Page 27                                                         GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
MSHA’s accident investigations are conducted by experienced teams of
inspectors and specialists, usually consisting of staff from the district in
which the accident occurred. Additional staff from MSHA headquarters
and the Technology Center, and, in the case of fatal accidents, attorneys
from the Department of Labor’s Solicitor’s Office, may also provide
assistance. In order to become qualified to conduct investigations of mine
accidents, inspectors and specialists are required to take special training
on accident investigations, in addition to that received by all inspectors
and specialists during their initial training. The special accident
investigation training covers such topics as data and evidence collection,
accident reconstruction, interviewing techniques, and preparation of
investigative reports. MSHA investigators are also required to take an
accident investigation retraining seminar every other year.

Investigators are required to follow specific steps in conducting and
documenting each accident, including trying to determine the underlying,
or “root,” cause of the accident. Investigators must conduct an on-site
examination of the accident scene, interview witnesses, and analyze
relevant mining equipment and material. Investigators must also follow
detailed reporting requirements, including completing standardized forms
and, in the case of serious accidents such as those involving a fatality,
preparing formal written reports that cover specific topics. In addition to
determining the direct causes of an accident, MSHA’s investigators must
determine the underlying causes. For example, for one mine in which
frequent ignitions were occurring, investigators determined that the direct
cause of the ignitions was sparks from the metal bit of a cutting machine
striking rock. These sparks in turn ignited the methane released as the
coal was cut out of the seam. The investigation team also went further and
identified the underlying cause as a problem with ventilation at the mine.
As a result, the mine operator made changes to the mine’s ventilation plan
and, according to MSHA officials, there had been no further ignitions in
that section of the mine.

MSHA uses several means to monitor the quality of accident
investigations. The accident investigation program manager in MSHA’s
headquarters office and the accident investigation coordinator at each
district office monitor the progress of each investigation and provide
guidance and recommendations to investigators on resources, collection
of evidence, and conducting interviews. A number of individuals at the
district and headquarters level review draft investigation reports, which
the accident investigation program manager then approves. The district
manager, the Office of the Solicitor, and the accident investigation



Page 28                                                GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                           program manager each review proposed citations and orders to be issued
                           as a result of accident investigations.

                           Although we did not conduct a comprehensive review of MSHA’s accident
                           investigations, we reviewed eight investigations in great depth at several of
                           the district offices we visited. For these selected cases, we reviewed
                           MSHA files and reports, interviewed investigators, and interviewed miners
                           and mine operators at some of the mines involved. We found that, for
                           these cases, the MSHA investigators had followed the required procedures
                           for conducting accident investigations.


MSHA’s Databases Used to   Because of weaknesses in the databases that MSHA uses to collect data on
Track Accidents and        accidents and its investigations, MSHA cannot properly monitor its
Investigations Have        accident investigations activity, including determining whether accidents
                           were investigated, or track trends in mine hazards that cause accidents.
Weaknesses
                           MSHA cannot use the data it collects on accidents, injuries, and
                           investigations to readily determine whether accidents were investigated or
                           monitor district performance in regard to their accident investigation
                           activity. MSHA has one database that contains information on all accidents
                           and injuries reported to MSHA by mine operators and contractors.19 It has
                           another database that tracks MSHA’s accident investigations activity,
                           including time spent by inspectors and specialists on each investigation.
                           However, it is very difficult to link the information on accidents and
                           investigations contained in these two databases. As a result, MSHA
                           headquarters cannot easily use the data to monitor whether districts have
                           investigated all fatal accidents as required or determine which serious
                           nonfatal accidents have been investigated. For example, we analyzed
                           information from both databases in an attempt to determine whether
                           MSHA investigated all fatal accidents in underground coal mines from
                           1993 to 2002. Although we were able to manually match each fatality to a
                           fatal accident investigation using the mine identification number and the
                           date of the investigation, and we found that MSHA had investigated all
                           fatalities as required, it was a difficult, time-consuming process.



                           19
                             Mine operators and independent contractors are required to file detailed reports with
                           MSHA on injuries that result from a mine accident. These reports include information on
                           the name of the injured person, the seriousness of the injury and the body part(s) affected,
                           and the number of days of missed work or restricted activity, if any, that resulted from the
                           injury.




                           Page 29                                                           GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
              In addition, it is difficult for MSHA to track trends in the most frequent
              causes of mine accidents or to readily determine which types of accidents
              result in multiple injuries or the percentage of accidents that result in
              injuries. This occurs because MSHA does not assign an identifier to each
              accident but rather tracks only the information reported by mine
              operators on individuals injured in accidents.20 For example, MSHA cannot
              easily determine the number of roof falls that occurred each year, or the
              percentage of all roof falls that were investigated. It can only show the
              number of individuals who were injured or killed as the result of roof falls
              and the number of noninjury roof falls that occurred.

              A few years ago, MSHA established a third database on accident
              investigations in order to record and disseminate information on accident
              investigations, including the results of investigations. The database
              contains detailed information on some accidents as well as MSHA’s
              investigations activity. However, because the information in the database
              is not complete (it does not contain information on all accidents), it
              cannot be used to monitor trends in the types of accidents or to determine
              the percentage of accidents investigated. Further, MSHA headquarters
              officials told us that few field or headquarters staff use the database to
              obtain or analyze information on accident investigations because the
              system is not user friendly.


              MSHA plays an important role in protecting the safety and health of coal
Conclusions   miners. MSHA has extensive policies and procedures and has assigned
              highly qualified staff to its processes for reviewing and approving mine
              plans, conducting inspections of underground coal mines, and
              investigating accidents. However, it is important for MSHA headquarters
              to ensure that the district offices to which it has delegated much of the
              responsibility for protecting the safety and health of mine workers have
              appropriate oversight, guidance, and staffing and to collect all of the data
              needed to evaluate their performance.

              MSHA headquarters has not always provided the oversight of district
              office operations needed to ensure timely completion of 6-month technical
              inspections in some districts, nor has it ensured that hazards identified
              during inspections are being corrected by mine operators on a timely
              basis. As a result, some mines may be operating without accurate or


              20
               MSHA does, however, assign an identifier to accidents in which no one was injured.




              Page 30                                                         GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                    complete ventilation or roof control systems or with uncorrected hazards,
                    which may adversely affect the safety and health of mine workers.

                    Headquarters also has not provided inspectors with the guidance they
                    need to carry out their work. Some procedures and guidance it has
                    provided to district offices for inspections are unclear and, in some cases,
                    difficult to locate. In the absence of such guidance, inspectors may not be
                    consistently applying the law and regulations designed to protect the
                    safety and health of mine workers. Moreover, the lack of guidance with
                    regard to coordinating inspections has led to duplication of effort,
                    diminishing MSHA’s ability to use its staff resources most efficiently.

                    In addition, MSHA is not preparing for a likely shortage of inspectors in
                    the future. MSHA officials have said the fact that they are unable to hire
                    until someone retires justifies their lack of planning. However, this
                    discounts the possibility that they might be able to better use their existing
                    resources or plan ways to lessen disruptions during the transitions. If
                    MSHA does not develop a plan for addressing the large number of
                    retirements of inspectors over the next 5 years, it may not be able to
                    continue to ensure the safety and health of underground coal miners.

                    Finally, MSHA is not collecting all of the data needed to evaluate its
                    performance and prevent future accidents. It does not collect data on the
                    hours worked by staff employed by independent contractors at specific
                    mines. MSHA also does not track information on accidents needed to
                    identify trends in mining accidents or link accidents and injuries to
                    investigations. Given the latitude that district managers have in deciding
                    whether to investigate serious accidents, it is important for MSHA
                    headquarters to be able to link information on accidents and investigations
                    in order to monitor district office performance. As a result, MSHA is not
                    able to assess the adequacy of its enforcement efforts at mines that
                    employ independent contractor staff to mine coal, properly target its
                    efforts to improve mine safety at mines with relatively high injury rates, or
                    maximize the likelihood of preventing future accidents.


                    In order to provide better oversight over its operations, including
Recommendations 	   collecting all of the data needed to provide this oversight, we recommend
                    that the Secretary of Labor direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety
                    and Health to




                    Page 31                                                 GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                       •	   monitor the timeliness of 6-month technical inspections conducted as part
                            of MSHA’s review of ventilation and roof control plans to ensure that all
                            inspections are completed by the district offices;

                       •	   monitor follow-up actions taken by its district offices to ensure that mine
                            operators are correcting hazards identified during inspections on a timely
                            basis;

                       •	   update and consolidate guidance provided to its district offices on plan
                            approval and inspections to eliminate inconsistencies and outdated
                            instructions, including clarifying guidance on coordinating technical
                            inspections with regular quarterly inspections of mines;

                       •	   develop a plan for addressing anticipated shortages in the number of
                            qualified inspectors due to upcoming retirements, including considering
                            options such as streamlining the agency’s hiring process and offering
                            retention allowances;

                       •	   amend the guidance provided to independent contractors engaged in high-
                            hazard activities requiring them to report information on the number of
                            hours worked by their staff at specific mines so that MSHA can use this
                            information to compute the injury and fatality rates used to measure the
                            effectiveness of its enforcement efforts; and

                       •    revise the systems it uses to collect information on accidents and
                            investigations to provide better data on accidents and make it easier to
                            link injuries, accidents, and investigations.


                            We provided a draft of this report to MSHA for comment. MSHA did not
Agency Comments 
           comment on our recommendations but expressed concern about many of
and Our Evaluation 
        our findings and disagreed with three of the findings on which our
                            recommendations are based. In addition, MSHA provided a few technical
                            comments and clarifications, which we incorporated as appropriate.
                            MSHA’s full comments and our responses are contained in appendix III.

                            MSHA disagreed with our finding that the agency does not ensure the
                            completion of 6-month technical inspections related to mine plans
                            conducted by its district offices. While MSHA acknowledged that the
                            information provided by the district offices to MSHA headquarters on
                            technical inspections is not accurate or complete, the agency said that the
                            inspections are actually being conducted by the district offices but not
                            recorded by the districts in the database, as evidenced by reports on file in



                            Page 32                                                GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
the district offices. MSHA also noted that the database is being upgraded,
which will enhance the agency’s ability to track and monitor the status of
technical inspections. In our view, MSHA’s current system places all
oversight responsibility on the district offices because MSHA headquarters
does not have the data needed to ensure that districts are completing
technical inspections as required by agency procedures. We maintain that
MSHA cannot properly monitor the completion of technical inspections by
its district offices when the information provided by the districts to MSHA
headquarters for this purpose is inaccurate.

MSHA expressed concern that it would be difficult to develop guidance for
all district offices on coordinating different types of inspections in order to
avoid duplication of effort because of the dynamic nature of the mining
industry. MSHA said that District Managers should be responsible for
developing standard operating procedures in this area. We continue to
believe that, while developing such guidance may be difficult, it is needed
to ensure that MSHA’s resources are used most effectively. In addition,
several district officials told us that more coordination of effort in this area
by MSHA could lead to better use of the agency’s resources and eliminate
potential duplication of effort.

MSHA took issue with portions of our finding related to the procedures
provided to inspectors for inspecting underground coal mines, noting that
the agency provides extensive training to inspectors on the procedures
and that inspectors must rely on their experience and knowledge in
determining what constitutes a violation. MSHA also noted that it is in the
process of providing additional training to its inspectors and improving the
ease of use of its manuals and other procedures. While we commended
MSHA on its efforts to provide additional training to inspectors and
consolidate its procedures, we noted that over reliance on inspectors’
experience can lead to inconsistencies in their interpretations of the
procedures.

On following through on its inspections to make sure that unsafe
conditions are corrected in a timely manner, MSHA agreed that this is an
important issue and said that it has already taken several actions to
address inconsistencies in this area. The agency detailed its efforts to
provide better guidance and additional training, establish a new
accountability program to ensure the consistency of its enforcement
actions, and stress the importance of timely follow up by inspectors to
ensure that hazards are corrected.




Page 33                                                  GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
MSHA disagreed with our finding that it does not have a plan for replacing
the large number of inspectors who will be eligible to retire in the next
5 years, saying that it does have such a plan. After receiving MSHA’s
comments on our draft report, we asked MSHA officials for a copy of the
plan referred to in their comments. They told us they did not have one plan
but, instead, had recently developed plans for each of the 11 district
offices and provided us with a copy of a plan for one district. This plan,
however, does not contain all of the elements of a high quality human
capital plan, such as linking the accomplishment of the agency’s strategic
goals to its future human capital needs. We maintain that MSHA needs to
develop a comprehensive plan that addresses the agency’s human capital
needs related to protecting the safety and health of coal miners.

Finally, MSHA disagreed with our finding that the databases it uses to
track mine accidents and investigations of these accidents have
weaknesses that limit its ability to monitor trends in mine hazards and
determine whether districts are investigating accidents. MSHA said that
the information it collects on accidents in its databases can be used for
these purposes. Our finding is accurate. The Accident Investigation
Database to which MSHA refers in its comments does not track all
accidents, it only tracks those that were investigated; therefore, the
database cannot be used to monitor trends in all mine accidents. In
addition, as noted in our report, the information in the database is
incomplete, and the database is not widely used throughout the agency
because it is not user friendly.


As agreed with your offices, unless you publicly announce its contents
earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report until 30 days from the
issue date. At that time, we will send copies of this report to the Secretary
of Labor, the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health, and other
interested parties. Copies will be made available to others upon request.
This report is also available at no charge on GAO’s web site at
http://www.gao.gov.




Page 34                                                 GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
If you have any questions concerning this report, please contact me at
(202) 512-7215 or Revae Moran at (202) 512-3863. Other major contributors
are listed in appendix IV.

Sincerely yours,




Robert E. Robertson
Director, Education, Workforce,
 and Income Security Issues




Page 35                                             GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Appendix I: MSHA’s Approval Process for
Ventilation and Roof Support Plans



        1
              Operator submits plan to
                   district office


        2
             Plan is dated
             and entered into
                                                                    Plan returns
             Mine Plan
                                                                       to mine
             Approval
                                                                      operator
             System


        3
               Supervisor reviews plan
                 for compliance with
                regulations, policies,
                   and procedures


        4
                Supervisor assigns
               plan to specialist for                                                                                End of approval process
              review and processing

                                                                                                             12
       5                                                                                                                Supervisor directs
            Specialist reviews/modifies
             plan for compliance with                                                                               specialist and/or inspector
             regulations, policies, and                                                                                to conduct 6-month
                   proceduresa                                                                                        technical inspection at
                                                                                                                                mine
                                                                                                                                         Delays
       6
              Specialist
              conducts on-site
                                                                                                        11
              technical
              inspection                                     7A                                                    Plan approval date
                                                                       Informal
                                                                                                                   entered into Mine
                                                                    discussions to
                                                                                                                   Plan Approval
                                                                    resolve issues
       7                                                                                                           System
                Specialist/supervisor
               suggests approval or                                  Disapproval
                   disapproval

                                          8                                 9                                 10
                                                 Supervisor sends               Assistant District Manager
                                              plan to Assistant District          sends plan to District                District Manager
        7B            Approval                  Manager suggesting              Manager recommending                    approves plan
                                                approval/disapproval              approval/disapproval



Source: GAO analysis of MSHA data.




                                                     Page 36                                                                   GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Appendix II: MSHA’s Approval Process for
Impoundment Plans



                                     1                                                                                        End of approval process
                                          Operator submits plan to                14                                    13
                                               district office                                                                 Plan approval
                                                                                          Letter of approval                   date enters
                                                                                                sent to                        Mine Plan
                                                                                            mine operator                      Approval
                                     2
                                          Plan is dated                                                                        System
                                          and entered
                                          into Mine Plan
                                          Approval
                                          System                                                                        12
                                                                                                                                  District Manager
                                     3                                                                                             approves plan
                                         Supervisor reviews/modifies
                                          plan for compliance with
                                          regulations, policies, and
                                                 proceduresa
                                                                                                                         11
                                                                                                                              Assistant District Manager
                                     4                                                                                        sends plan and comments
                                             Supervisor assigns                                                                  to District Manager
                                            plan to specialist for                                                             recommending approval
                                          review and processing,
                                            submits plan to the
                                            Technology Center

                                                                                                                         10
                                     5                                        6                                                   Supervisor sends
                                                                                   Technology Center                            plan and comments to
                                                                                   specialist conducts                        Assistant District Manager
                                                                                   review of plan                              recommending approval
              7A                                                                   for compliance
                                         Supervisor at Technology                  with regulations,
               Plan returns                  Center assigns                        policies, and
                 to mine                    plan to specialist                     procedures                             9
                 operator                                 Delays                                                                   Specialist sends
                                                                                                                                plan and comments to
                                                                              7                                                     supervisor for
                                                                                  Specialist/supervisor suggests
                                                                                                                               review and concurrence
                                               Disapproval b                      approval/disapproval to Chief
                                                                                     of the Mine Waste and
                                                                                   Geotechnical Engineering
                                                                                              Division
                                                                                                                          8
                                                                                                                               Technology Center Chief
                                                                                                                              sends plan and comments
                                                                                            Approval                          to district recommending
                                                                                                                                        approval


Source: GAO analysis of MSHA data.
                                                             a
                                                               Modifications to the plan can be made at any point throughout the review and approval process.
                                                             b
                                                              If the plan is disapproved, MSHA forwards the review comments and requests for additional technical
                                                             information to the mine operator via the same process indicated for plan approval.




                                                             Page 37                                                                  GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Appendix III: Comments from the
Department of Labor

Note: GAO comments
supplementing those in
the report text appear at
the end of this appendix.




See comment 1.




See comment 2.




See comment 3.




                            Page 38   GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                 Appendix III: Comments from the Department
                 of Labor




See comment 4.




See comment 5.




                 Page 39                                      GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                 Appendix III: Comments from the Department
                 of Labor




See comment 6.




See comment 7.




                 Page 40                                      GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                 Appendix III: Comments from the Department
                 of Labor




See comment 8.




                 Page 41                                      GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                 Appendix III: Comments from the Department
                 of Labor




See comment 9.




                 Page 42                                      GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                  Appendix III: Comments from the Department
                  of Labor




See comment 10.




See comment 11.




See comment 12.




                  Page 43                                      GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
                  Appendix III: Comments from the Department
                  of Labor




See comment 13.




See comment 14.




See comment 15.




See comment 16.




See comment 17.




                  Page 44                                      GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Appendix III: Comments from the Department
of Labor




Page 45                                      GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Appendix III: Comments from the Department
of Labor




Page 46                                      GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
               Appendix III: Comments from the Department
               of Labor




               1. 	 The briefing to which MSHA refers is the exit conference held on
GAO Comments        August 5, 2003, in which we described the findings, conclusions, and
                    recommendations contained in this report to MSHA in detail. At this
                    conference, as well as briefings held with top MSHA officials in June,
                    MSHA generally concurred with our findings, conclusions, and
                    recommendations. The information presented at the exit conference
                    and the other briefings is consistent with the information contained in
                    this report.

               2. 	 We believe the title of the report presents a fair, balanced, and
                    accurate representation of the information in our report. Moreover,
                    MSHA’s own suggested title acknowledges a need for improvement.


               3. 	 Our finding that MSHA does not provide adequate oversight of the
                    districts’ completion of 6-month technical inspections is accurate. As
                    MSHA acknowledges in its comments, the information reported by the
                    district offices to MSHA headquarters on technical inspections is not
                    accurate or complete. Therefore, MSHA headquarters cannot use this
                    information to monitor the completion of inspections by the districts.
                    Our draft report noted problems with the accuracy of the data reported
                    by district offices to MSHA headquarters on technical inspections.
                    However, because of the concerns MSHA expressed in its comments
                    about the accuracy of the data, we clarified the discussion of this issue
                    in the report and deleted detailed information included in an appendix
                    to the draft derived from the data. We commend MSHA on its efforts to
                    improve the accuracy of the data collected by its district offices,
                    thereby enhancing the agency’s ability to monitor the status of these
                    inspections.

               4. 	 We used the term “technical inspection” in our report in order to
                    provide a reader friendly method of referring to the on-site inspections
                    conducted by MSHA related to mine plans. The term “plan review”
                    used by MSHA does not distinguish the reviews specialists conduct at
                    the district offices in order to determine whether written plans
                    submitted by mine operators comply with the law, regulations, and
                    MSHA’s procedures from the on-site inspections conducted at the
                    mines in order to compare the plans to actual conditions at the mines.

               5. 	 We clarified the language in the report to more accurately reflect
                    agency procedures.




               Page 47                                                GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Appendix III: Comments from the Department
of Labor




6. 	 While MSHA believes the “dynamics” of the mining industry preclude a
     formal plan for coordinating inspections, several district officials we
     interviewed said that more coordination of effort in this area by MSHA
     could lead to better use of agency resources and eliminate potential
     duplication of effort. Furthermore, MSHA headquarters officials issued
     a memorandum in June 2003 encouraging districts to better coordinate
     inspections conducted by specialists and inspectors, suggesting that
     coordination could be important in avoiding duplication.

7. 	 We commend MSHA on its efforts to address this problem. Both of the
     initiatives MSHA mentions are included in our report, and we
     encourage the agency to move forward with these hiring and staffing
     initiatives.

8. 	 We commend MSHA on its efforts to provide additional training to
     inspectors and to consolidate its procedures. However, our interviews
     with inspectors indicate that they interpret guidance they receive
     differently and are sometimes uncertain as to what constitutes a
     violation. While we acknowledge that an inspector’s experience is an
     important component of the decision-making process, an over reliance
     on experience can lead to inconsistencies in inspectors’ interpretations
     of the procedures. We also note that MSHA’s comment that our report
     implies that MSHA and the Office of the Solicitor have been inattentive
     in ensuring that inspectors receive accurate and timely training on the
     legal tests needed to be applied for various enforcement decisions is
     not accurate. Our report makes no such statement; it refers only to the
     written procedures provided by MSHA to inspectors.

9. 	 We commend MSHA’s efforts in this area and again stress the
     importance of using the data it collects in its Coal Management
     Information System to monitor the timeliness of inspectors’ actions to
     ensure that mine operators are correcting all mine hazards as required.
     MSHA’s own guidance states that a violation cannot be abated until an
     inspector re-inspects the area. As noted in our report, MSHA officials
     told us that they have begun tracking the numbers of citations for
     which inspectors have not followed up in a timely manner as part of a
     new initiative to better monitor district office performance.

10. We made this correction to the report. However, we note that we did,
    in fact, request information from MSHA officials on the historical
    status of each mine but chose not to use the information because the
    officials expressed doubts about its accuracy.




Page 48                                                GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Appendix III: Comments from the Department
of Labor




11. In several conversations with senior level MSHA officials, including the
    Assistant Director for Human Resources, they told us that, although
    they were in the process of developing a plan for addressing the large
    number of retirements the agency is facing over the next 5 years, they
    had not yet developed such a plan. After receiving MSHA’s comments
    on our draft report, we asked MSHA officials for a copy of the plan
    referred to in the agency’s comments. They told us they did not have
    one plan but, instead, had recently developed plans for each of the 11
    district offices and provided us with a copy of a plan for one district
    dated March 2003. When we visited this district office in March 2003,
    we discussed the issue of how the district will address the large
    number of inspectors who will retire in the next 5 years. At that time,
    the district officials told us they were in the process of developing a
    plan for how to replace these inspectors but had not completed the
    plan. They did not mention having such a plan in place, and we were
    not provided with a copy of the plan at that time.

    Based on our review of the district plan provided to us by MSHA, we
    commend the agency for beginning to take appropriate actions
    necessary to address anticipated staffing shortages. The plan, however,
    does not integrate accomplishment of MSHA’s mission to protect the
    safety and health of coal miners with its human capital approaches,
    including identifying the total number of inspectors needed to
    accomplishment its mission, or address how these numbers will be
    maintained through hiring and training of new inspectors as
    retirements occur. The plan also does not link the accomplishment of
    MSHA’s strategic goals using outcome data—such as trends in the
    incidence rate (fatalities and nonfatal injuries) at underground coal
    mines—to its future human capital needs. As noted in our
    recommendation, MSHA needs to develop a comprehensive plan that
    addresses the human capital needs of the agency as they pertain to
    protecting the safety and health of coal miners rather than just
    developing plans for each of its district offices.

12. We suggested the use of retention allowances as one type of human
    capital flexibility that can benefit an agency facing a potential loss of
    employees in a particular skill area. The use of retention allowances,
    however, is only one of the human capital flexibilities we mentioned in
    the report. In including a list of human capital flexibilities, our intent
    was that MSHA would select those that are cost-effective and
    beneficial to the agency.




Page 49                                                 GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Appendix III: Comments from the Department
of Labor




13. While we commend MSHA in its continuing efforts to address the issue
    of reporting by independent contractors, our recommendation to
    amend guidance so that all independent contractors are required to
    report the number of hours worked by their staffs at specific mines
    would not require a regulatory change. However, if MSHA believes
    that a regulatory change is necessary, it should take appropriate
    action. In either case, we believe that obtaining input from the mining
    community prior to making such a change and notifying them of the
    change would be beneficial to the entire mining community.

14. Our report does not state that information on certain types of
    accidents and investigations cannot be linked but rather that doing so
    is a difficult process and, in its comments, MSHA agreed that the
    process is cumbersome. The report, however, refers to linking data in
    the Part 50 Database in which injuries resulting from accidents are
    tracked with data in the Coal Management Information System on
    accident investigations. In its comments, MSHA refers to linking data
    from the Part 50 Database to information in the Accident Investigation
    Database. MSHA is correct in stating that injuries and noninjury
    accidents recorded in the Part 50 Database can be linked to accident
    investigations in the Accident Investigation Database. However, the
    Accident Investigations Database only contains information on
    accidents that were investigated, not all mine accidents. In addition, as
    noted in our report, the database is incomplete and is not widely used
    throughout the agency because it is not user friendly.

15. Our finding that MSHA does not assign an identifier to each mine
    accident is accurate. The document number on the Form 7000-1 to
    which MSHA refers in its comments is assigned to each injury, not
    each accident, except for accidents in which no injuries occur.
    Therefore, it is difficult to determine how many accidents of each type
    occurred or to track trends in the types of accidents that account for
    the most injuries.

16. The detailed list MSHA provided to us as an appendix to its comments
    shows the total number of injuries, by degree, that resulted from roof
    falls and the total number of noninjury accidents that occurred as a
    result of roof falls for the past 20 years. The data do not, as MSHA
    implies, show the total number of roof falls that occurred during this
    period. As noted in our report, this makes it difficult for MSHA to track
    trends in the most frequent causes of mine accidents or readily
    determine the percentage of accidents that result in injuries.

17. We made this correction to the report.



Page 50                                                GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
Appendix IV: GAO Contacts and Staff
Acknowledgments

                  Revae E. Moran, (202) 512-3863
GAO Contacts
                  Other major contributors to this report are Patrick J. Dibattista, Julian P.
Staff             Klazkin, Stanley J. Kostyla, Anne Inserra, Lori Rectanus, Leslie C. Ross,
Acknowledgments   Jerome T. Sandau, Linda W. Stokes, and Kris Trueblood.




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                  Page 51                                                 GAO-03-945 Mine Safety
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