Mine safety: trying to beef up inspections

Safer coal mines That's what just about everyone wants.But the US doesn't have enough inspectors. And tight budgets are making it hard to hire more.One possible answer: make better use of the inspectors now available.The issue took on new urgency this week. The toll from three mine accidents in the East in five days now stands at 24 killed. A move by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) could help. It would give more control over operations to its offices right in the fields.The agency is about to reorganize its coal mine safety inspection division. It will place its education and training units and its safety violation assessment units under the aegis of the district managers in MSHA field offices. By strengthening local mine inspection efforts, officials hope to gain more effective enforcement of safety requirements. The agency admits that at present these requirements are not being met, partly because of the federal hiring freeze. Reagan administration officials say this reorganization - expected to be implemented early next year - is not a response to the recent string of Appalachian coal mine accidents. But one MSHA official says there should have been better management of existing inspection personnel in the past year as well.By law, underground coal mines are supposed to undergo four complete safety inspections every year. But in some cases, the number of inspections conducted fall short of that requirement.For fiscal 1981 (which ended Sept. 30) the MSHA field office in Logan, W.Va., had made only 80 percent of the ''complete inspections'' on coal mines required by law, MSHA comptroller Richard Baker says. When asked if this 80 percent figure was accurate, the supervisor of the Logan field office replied, ''Not hardly that much.'' United Mine Workers (UMW) safety experts charge that the reason inspections did not meet federal requirements is the lack of inspectors. Most MSHA officials don't dispute this contention.According to MSHA's most recent figures, the number of coal mine safety inspectors nationwide dropped by 73 to 1,011 during the fiscal 1981. One MSHA official attributes much of this decline to the federal hiring freeze. However, Comptroller Baker says that despite the reduction in inspectors , the agency probably could have used this reduced number of inspectors more effectively - and indicated that possibly some lives might have been saved as a result.In retrospect, Mr. Baker contends, there could have been ''prioritization'' of mines that officials felt might be potential trouble spots. He adds that the agency could ''have accommodated a movement of inspectors'' to field offices where there was the greatest need for them.As of this writing, this year's coal mining accident fatality toll of 143 people is the worst since 1975.The events of this past week have spurred the UMW to ask the Reagan administration to increase the number of federal mine inspections. But earlier this year similar pleas from the union largely went unheeded. At the UMW's urging, Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D) of West Virginia, whose district includes a big chunk of ''coal country,'' wrote to MSHA officials that the MSHA field office in his district was ''seriously undermanned and it's incapable of fulfilling its required inspections under the law.'' Representative Rahall wrote that for the first three months of 1981 the field office was required to do 91 complete inspections and it conducted only 76. Then, in the next three months of the year, the field office inspections dropped to only 62 of the required 91 inspections.On Oct. 9 of this year, Thomas J. Shepich, then MSHA's deputy assistant director, wrote back to Rahall explaining that as a result of federal ''hiring restrictions,'' certain field offices had had staffing shortages. However, Mr. Shepich went on to assure Rahall that ''MSHA can perform its responsibilities'' within these restrictions.In addition to writing MSHA, Rahall also contacted the federal General Accounting Office about the inspection problems, and one Rahall aide says that the GAO had promised to investigate the situation in January

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