"At a time when the DOL system was already beset by backlog and delay, the shutdown is simply further restricting access to justice for disabled miners and their families," Petsonk said.
At MSHA, the shutdown contingency plan called for the agency to send home nearly 1,400 of its 2,355 employees nationwide. The agency was scheduled to focus its furloughs at its Arlington, Va., headquarters as part of an effort to continue as many mine inspections as possible.
Industry officials have said so far that there is no evidence that any of the three deaths that occurred during the government shutdown had anything to do with MSHA's cutbacks.
But Roberts noted that MSHA has stopped its legally mandated "regular inspections of each of the nation's coal mines, and is instead "keeping an eye on operators and mines with a history of mine safety and health problems, or responding to special situations."
Unlike other kinds of workplaces, federal law requires periodic safety and health inspections at all of the nation's coal mines. Under the law, MSHA is supposed to conduct what agency officials call "fours and twos," inspecting every mine "in its entirety," at least once per quarter for underground mines and twice per year for surface mines.
During the government shutdown, MSHA is instead conducting only "targeted inspections" that focused on "high-hazard" mines with a history of conditions and practices that have recently caused deaths or serious injuries."
Industry officials say they are still seeing MSHA inspectors at their operations, but Labor Department officials have not said how many "targeted inspections" they are able to accomplish given their staffing cuts.
"The government shutdown means that there are fewer mine inspectors on the job," Roberts said. "No regular inspections are taking place, even though they are required by law."
MSHA's plan for "targeted inspections" is actually similar to proposals that the National Mining Association and others in the mining industry have made for years. Industry officials believe MSHA should focus its efforts on operations with the most problems.
"Targeting resources is something we've advocated in the past," said Bruce Watzman, senior vice president for the National Mining Association.
Watzman said his group did not suggest that mandatory inspections of all mines be eliminated. "Rather," he said, "targeting speaks to how MSHA conducts their work while at a mine so that it's targeted to those areas where the potential for hazards are the greatest.
"We believe MSHA, if they so desired, could accommodate this by redefining how they interpret the phrase "in its entirety" which guides their inspection focus," Watzman said.