After the explosion that rocked a West Virginia mine, killing 29 workers, Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors have stepped up their efforts, using the regulatory tools already available to them to expand their enforcement activities.
A reform bill making its way through Congress would expand the mine regulator’s authority, but what’s already changed is that inspectors are now using preexisting powers to a much fuller extent — particularly their ability to conduct surprise inspections and pull workers out of mines with serious health hazards until those hazards have been abated.
“We’re aggressively using the closure order as a tool of choice” Main said.
“I see more withdraw orders than I ever saw in the past,” said Ellen Smith, the managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News. “MSHA’s always had power to issue them,” she said, “they just didn’t use the power that they had to the fullest extent. They’re doing that now. They’ve never done it before, under anyone.”
MSHA statistics show 1,287 closure orders between April 5 and August 5 of this year, 285 more than during the same period last year.
Smith said she’s even heard of surprise inspections in off hours. “For MSHA to go into a mine on third shift was unheard of,” she said.
One law has changed, to dramatic effect – a measure inserted into the financial reform bill which requires mining companies who trade on the stock market to register serious mine violations with the SEC. This has caused fluctuations in stock prices when serious violations get noticed by industry analysts and shareholders.
Similarly, in response to a large-scale event, the FDA plans to inspect all large egg farms in the United States, where about 80% of the nation’s eggs are produced.
An Obama administration official says inspectors will visit about 600 large egg farms that produce 80 percent of the nation’s eggs. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not yet been announced. This will be the first government effort to inspect large egg farms, as most of them have gone largely uninspected for decades.
The FDA’s plan for heightened inspections came after more than half a billion eggs linked to cases of salmonella poisoning were recalled from two Iowa farms this month. The inspections will be conducted as part of new FDA rules put in place this July to prevent salmonella in shell eggs.
In both of these cases, the emphasis on prevention comes only after a tragedy occurs. It spurs the regulatory apparatus into action. The post-tragedy effect is positive, but you would have hoped that the deaths of 29 miners or the sickening of 1,500 egg eaters would not be necessary to kick-start these efforts. Especially because, in the case of Jack DeCoster, proprietor of the two big egg farms involved in the recall, the signs were readily apparent that he was a menace:
Long before Austin “Jack” DeCoster became a central figure in one of the largest egg recalls in history, he had paid more than $10 million in fines and suit settlements, his eggs were banned in one state and quarantined in another, and he was almost single-handedly responsible for new restrictions on child labor in his native Maine.
Despite this, both of DeCoster’s Iowa-based egg farms had never been inspected by the FDA.
I appreciate this leap to action by the MSHA and the FDA, but wish it didn’t take sickness and death to get us there.