February 22, 2007 The Pump Handle 0Comment

MSHA’s Assistant Secretary Richard Stickler revealed yesterday the agency’s new procedures for determining whether a work-related death “is to be counted as a reportable death in MSHA’s official statistics.”  In my post “Counting (or Not) of Workers’ Deaths,” I pushed Mr. Stickler to share the results of his review of MSHA’s fatality accounting system.  After reading the new policy, I’m having one of those “be careful what you wish for” reactions.

In a memorandum entitled “Process for Determining Chargeability of Fatal Accidents,” Assistant Secretary Stickler provides a “Fatal Injury Guideline Matrix” which MSHA district managers will use to decide whether a death is counted in MSHA’s official count of mining-related deaths.  The trouble with the matrix is it forgets the agency’s core mission of prevention.  As pointed out by former Assistant Secretary Davitt McAteer in a Pittsburg Post-Gazette article: 

“The guidelines should be applied in a way that improves the chances of preventing deaths in the future because that’s the real mission of the agency.” 

In other words, failing to count certain kinds of fatal injuries (or, for that matter, non-fatal injuries or illnesses) is like wearing blinders.  If we don’t count this kind of fatality, or that kind of fatality, how will we notice new trends, and then take steps to prevent them in the future?

The new MSHA criteria takes a reductionist approach to accounting for mining-related fatalities.  It backs MSHA away from its public health and prevention roots to an attitude aligned with the mining industry.  This attitude seeks to attribute as few fatalities as possible to mining operations.

Heart attacks or other deaths deemed to be related to “natural causes” have not been (and will not be) counted by MSHA.  If they aren’t “counted” they also aren’t investigated by MSHA.  (For a long time, I’ve thought this situation is a true missed opportunity.)  The scientific evidence on the association between air pollutants (e.g., particulate matter, SOx) and cardiovascular mortality, including heart attacks, has developed rapidly in the last decade.  If a miner dies of a heart attack at his jobsite, or shortly after leaving work, wouldn’t it be worthwhile for MSHA to assess the environmental factors to which the worker was exposed?  For example, was he a mechanic working underground with diesel-powered equipment and high exposure to diesel particulate matter?  Was he a motorman involved in a complex longwall move and exposed to high levels of air contaminants? 

By investigating these “natural cause” deaths among miners, might we learn something about exposures or mining operations that may pose a risk to miners’ health?  Instead, we are stuck in a 1970’s mentality about mining-related fatalities.  We count roof and rib falls, methane explosions and belt fires, but prefer to leave deaths from coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, silicosis, asbestosis, and other mining-related diseases out of the official statistics.

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