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In the wake of tragedy, mine safety administration publishes new regulations

Flickr photo by Talk Radio News

On the heels of the conviction of former Upper Big Branch Mine superintendent Gary May, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis has announced a final rule to strengthen safety in the nation’s most dangerous mines.

The rule revises the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) pattern of violations regulation (POV), which is a part of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. Until now, the POV regulation had not been implemented. It will finally give MSHA the much-needed authority to stop mine production if a pattern of dangerous job conditions are present.

MSHA has said that the rule will ensure that mine operators monitor and address the most hazardous safety problems in their mines. It will also strengthen MSHA’s ability to respond to dangerous mining conditions, and improve safety and health regulations for mining’s most important resource – the miner. The new rule does much more than increase fines for infractions. If a mine operator continues to thumb its nose at working conditions, it could be shut down.

Due to the tragedy at Upper Big Branch Mine, which killed 29 mine workers, the secretary’s announcement is bittersweet, as some miners may feel it comes a little late. However, mine safety and health advocates will laud expanded protections for mine workers and stiffer penalties for mine operators who put profit over people.

It is unfortunate that MSHA officials seem only to respond with employee protections in the wake of disaster. Nevertheless, the new rules being proposed as a result of the tragedy at Upper Big Branch Mine are a welcome sign that mine safety practices – and working conditions for miners – are improving.

Keith Wrightson is Public Citizen’s workplace safety expert. Follow him @SafeWorkers