CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Before every shift worked in an underground coal mine, coal operators are supposed to check for safety problems. Violations are to be marked with a "danger" sign. No one is supposed to go to work until the violations are fixed.
At least that's what federal mine safety law has said since 1969, when Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.
But since 1992, that's not what the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has required. That year, the first Bush administration weakened MSHA regulations, requiring mine safety checks to look for violations only if they posed an immediate hazard to miners.
Now, MSHA chief Joe Main wants to change that. Main, a former United Mine Workers safety director, proposed last week to restore the language Congress intended, as part of his plan to respond to the deaths of 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
"We need a system that encourages employers to engage in planning and control of hazards," Main told a Senate committee last week. "This kind of planning, coupled with enforcement, will result in actual protection of workers."
The "fireboss" run in a coal mine is a key part of safety and health protections. A fireboss, typically a salaried employee or foreman, goes into the mine before a working shift to check methane level, air flow and other safety conditions.
Under the 1969 law, such safety checks -- called "pre-shift examinations" -- were required to be done within three hours before each shift.
Violations that were discovered were to be written in mine records, and warning signs placed in the area of the violations. Under the 1969 law, this applied to any "condition which constitutes a violation of a mandatory health or safety standard" or "any condition which is hazardous" to workers.