"Mine operators have a responsibility to comply with all applicable federal and state regulatory requirements," Watzman said in an email message. "While some portion of MSHA's inspectorate is impacted by the government shutdown, mine operators' safety activities are not on furlough nor are those of states that have inspection responsibilities."
Also, Watzman said, "In addition to complying with regulatory requirements, identifying and analyzing risk can prevent similar tragedies. By doing so, the industry will shift from a mere focus on compliance to one of prevention and that has the greatest potential to prevent future accidents and injuries."
In its prepared statement, MSHA said that despite the government shutdown, the agency "continues to perform certain activities which, if not conducted, would significantly compromise the safety of human life in the nation's mines."
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," which are complete inspections of every underground mine in the country at least once per quarter and of every surface mine at least twice per year.
But 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."
MSHA's 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.
Stephen Barr, a labor department spokesman, said that MSHA could not immediately say how many "targeted inspections" have been conducted in the last week because agency staff who would keep such records have been furloughed.
"I'm not sure they can do the fours and twos during a lapse in appropriations," Barr said. "We'll have to see what's doable."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.