The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) failed to meet federal requirements to inspect a specific amount of mines per year from 2018 through 2021.
A report from the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General (OIG) revealed that MSHA failed to inspect each underground mine at least four times per year and each surface mine at least two times per year. These inspections are required under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.
OIG conducted the audit because of “long-standing concerns regarding MSHA’s operational risks associated with its mandatory inspections program” and how those risks impact the agency’s mission to protect miners.
The audit was conducted to determine if MSHA completed the required inspections before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. This audit was performed by:
- interviewing MSHA personnel
- reviewing MSHA policies
- analyzing 78,598 mandatory inspections from fiscal year 2018 through fiscal year 2021, and
- evaluating MSHA’s inspection completion data.
Didn’t complete 1,589 inspections, reported 100% completion
The audit revealed that MSHA didn’t complete an estimated 1,589 mandatory safety and health mine inspections before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the agency reported “a nearly 100% completion rate” for that same period of time.
This discrepancy was “largely due to inspections eliminated from idle mine visits and errors in accounting for the types of activities performed.”
How could this scale of discrepancy occur? Because the agency failed to improve upon its internal control system for these inspections. An OIG 2011 audit found similar internal control issues and the problem was pointed out to MSHA at that time, but no changes were made.
The audit identified weaknesses in seven areas that affected:
- when or how often to conduct a mine status verification
- what aspects to check, and
- what tools to use.
These weaknesses in MSHA’s ability to accurately determine a mine’s status increased the risk of the agency not completing its mandatory inspections.
Breakdowns in the internal control system created the weaknesses and increased the risk of both incorrectly calculating the required inspections and not completing inspections.
There were other issues affecting MSHA’s ability to accurately calculate and report the required inspections. Those issues included:
- inaccurate or incomplete data
- ineffective communication, and
- missing policies.
All of this led to incorrect reporting to both Congress and the public on how many inspections MSHA actually completed in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Agency agreed with findings, recommendations
To correct these problems, OIG made 11 recommendations, including:
- transparently reporting each year on the number of idle mine visits and attempted inspections used to eliminate mandatory inspections each fiscal year
- updating various policies to define a schedule for verifying mine statuses, specify when visual verifications are necessary and require that mandatory inspections start and end in the same fiscal year, among other things
- redesigning certain monitoring processes
- updating supporting tools based on revisions to the mine status criteria, and
- revising business rules used in MSHA reports to align with the Mine Act and MSHA policy or updating MSHA policy accordingly.
MSHA generally agreed with the OIG audit findings. The agency responded to the audit with actions it intends to take, including plans to:
- update mine status criteria and its internal mine status tool
- update policies, and
- implement a system control requiring the “primary mine type” field to be populated before a report can be submitted.