January 3, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

A coal mine operator in Hazard, Kentucky received a $220,000 penalty from MSHA for flagrantly violating electrical lockout/tagout procedures (such as padlocking an on/off switch to ensure that a machine is not unexpectedly turned-on, plugged in or energized while it is being serviced.)  The hefty monetary penalty was authorized under the 2006 MINER Act for flagrant violations, defined as:

“a reckless or repeated failure to make reasonable efforts to eliminate a known violation of a mandatory safety and health standard that substantially and proximately caused, or reasonably could have been expected to cause, death or serious bodily injury.”

In this case, it was an electrician working at the Teco Energy Perry County Coal’s E4-1 mine in June 2007 who received an severe electrical shock and burns because of the company’s disregard for safety.  MSHA’s investigators found that failing to lockout/tagout equipment was “a common practice at the mine, and one in which mine management was fully aware.  Furthermore, miners were instructed to operate equipment without being properly trained.”

MSHA’s news release notes:

“One the day of the accident, the shift section foreman had requested that the high-voltage circuit to the mechanized mining unit (MMU) be de-energized to allow the installation of an additional length of high voltage cable via a splice box.  Once installed, the victim, an electrician, telephoned the mine foreman and requested that the circuit to the MMU be re-energized, which caused a nearby power source to fail.  Workers assumed the cable had a fault, which they quickly repaired.  When the victim began reinstalling the cable into the splice box, the power became energized.  Although he wore rubber gloves, he received burns on his right wrists and left index finger.  He was treated for shock, the transported to the surface and taken to the hospital for further treatment.”

When the mine operator reported the June 2007 lost-time incident to MSHA, he describe it this way:

“Employee and assistant started ground faulting breakers at 13 drive 750 box.  The first breaker he went to ground was a 995 volt head drive spare; when employee went to test breaker it blew out burning both his hands and forearms.”

The company’s version doesn’t sound too bad.  I’m glad to learn that the inspectors and staff working in MSHA’s Pikeville, KY district thought otherwise and followed-up on this incident, and were able to document the company’s history of discounting workers’ safety.  I like that Assistant Secretary Stickler seems to be showing a zero-tolerance policy for violators of lagout/tagout protections.  In his statement announcing these flagrant violations, Stickler said:

“MSHA will not hesitate to assess stiff penalties against coal companies that fail to comply with safety and health regulations.”

 His statement comes on the heels of a Dec. 29 editorial by The Charleston Gazette endorsing Stickler to stay on at MSHA (he has been serving under a recess appointment.)  The Gazette’s editors note:

“Stickler has acknowledged the need for MSHA to crack down on safety violators. He has said that safety policies start at the top of an organization. He inherited a demoralized and understaffed agency, suffering under years of cuts by the Bush administration. Given a chance, he might actually improve the agency’s performance and conditions for miners.  

“No better prospect is in sight. President Bush is unlikely to offer a better nominee, if he bothered with one at all. In a year, there will be a new president, and the whole process of appointing people to hundreds of jobs will begin again. Mine safety will be just one of many posts demanding attention.

“In the meantime, miners’ safety would be better served by having someone firmly and unquestionably in charge of that agency. Stickler has not had time to fix the damage inflicted on MSHA during the past seven years. He has new mandates and new funding from Congress to carry out some improvements. It would be a better use of everyone’s time to give him the chance to do so.”

I came to the same conclusion in my Dec. 14 post “MSHA’s Stickler: Will he stay or will he go?”:

“To his credit, Mr. Stickler has made a lot of commitments over the last few months to straighten things out at the agency.  He’s instituted a program to put “bad-actor” mine operators on notice (i.e.,pattern of violations), he established an office of accountability and the 100 percent plan to ensure all inspections are completed.  Perhaps he’s also learned some harsh lessons about his agency’s culture and the performance of his top staff.  The learning curve is steeper than most people realize. 

“With only one year left in the G.W. Bush Administration, it would be wise to keep Mr. Stickler on board at MSHA.  We should expect that he’s learned from his mistakes and demand that he make good on his promises.”  

Perhaps the higher-ups in Secretary Elaine Chao’s office and at the White House will be busy this year stumping for their favorite GOP presidential candidates that they’ll leave Mr. Stickler alone to do the apolitical work of enforcing mine safety laws.  He’s off to a good start announcing this penalty against TECO Energy’s  (NYSE: TE) Perry Coal Mine.

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