March 27, 2012 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Earlier this month, the Mine Safety and Health Administration released results of an internal review into the agency’s actions leading up to the April 5, 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, which killed 29 miners in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The Executive Summary reports, “While the Internal Review team did not find evidence that the actions of District 4 personnel or inadequacies in MSHA safety and health standards, policies, or procedures caused the explosion, the team found several instances where enforcement efforts at UBB were compromised because MSHA and District 4 did not follow established Agency policies and procedures.”

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis had also requested an independent assessment of MSHA’s internal review from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. On Friday, Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette and Howard Berkes of NPR obtained copies of the report and blogged about them. Ward demonstrates how much more strongly worded NIOSH’s descriptions of MSHA’s failures are, when compared to the agency’s own internal review:

The NIOSH panel reported that MSHA’s internal review team was asking the wrong question:

Although the IP does not take exception to the MSHA IR Report’s conclusion that the mine operator, not MSHA, caused the explosion, the IP believes that this characterization of the facts understates the role that MSHA’s enforcement could have had in preventing the explosion. Had the MSHA IR Team considered the causation issue from a broader point of view, the IP believes that the IR Team might also have pose the following question:

Would a more effective enforcement effort have prevented the UBB explosion?

And again, the NIOSH panel’s ultimate finding:

… If MSHA had engaged in timely enforcement of the Mine Act … it would have lessened the chances of — and possibly prevented — the UBB explosion. Even if a frictional ignition had occurred , there would have been insufficient combustible coal dust to fuel a massive explosion.

Here’s Berkes’s summary of the NIOSH team’s main criticisms:

The NIOSH team absolves MSHA of any ability to prevent the methane ignition that triggered the deadly blast. But it says agency inspectors and supervisors failed to notice and resolve two other serious sets of conditions underground that helped turn a relatively minor methane ignition into a massive explosion.

First, MSHA inspectors failed to complete required enforcement actions during four inspections before the blast. If they had done that for at least one of the four inspections, the report concludes, “it is unlikely that a roof fall would have occurred and that airflow would have been reduced” in the mine.

“With the proper quantity of air, there would not have been an accumulation of methane, thereby eliminating the fuel sources for the gas explosion,” the report says.

Second, MSHA inspectors failed to spot and address dangerous accumulations of explosive coal dust. They could have required Massey to render the coal dust inert or they could have idled the mine, according to the NIOSH investigators.

MSHA has posted the NIOSH Independent Panel’s report on its website, and as I’m writing this MSHA head Joseph Main is appearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in a hearing entitled “Learning from the Upper Big Branch Tragedy.”

In other news:

EHS Today: An OSHA memo for compliance officers and whistleblower investigative staff addresses employer policies and practices that can (intentionally or not) discourage workers from reporting injuries. These range from disciplinary actions against workers who report injuries to offering prizes for teams with no reported injuries over a time period.

The Investigative Fund: Some salons continue to offer the formaldehyde-releasing Brazilian Blowout hair treatments even as hair stylists report breathing problems and other health effects — and because many stylists are classified as being self-employed, they have little recourse when salon owners decide to keep using the product.

CBC News: Ontario’s parliament may ban the import of asbestos brake pads, which have been associated with mesothelioma and lung cancer in auto mechanics.

Reuters: Thousands of former gold miners suffering from silicosis are joining a lawsuit South African gold companies.

NIOSH Science Blog: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has been studying the occupational health implications of spray polyurethane foam, which is being widely used in energy-efficiency building and renovation. The agency is seeking partners who’ll allow NIOSH researchers to collect air samples during spray foam application.

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