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MSHA News Release No. 95-043
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: (703) 235-1452

November 24, 1995

To Protect Miners, Federal Inspectors Worked Through Furlough

Most Federal mine inspectors stayed on the job during last week's furlough of Federal employees, and it's fortunate that they did, according to Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. McAteer heads the U.S. Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

"While we had to postpone some of MSHA's normal activities, we kept front-line mine inspectors on the job to conduct special focus inspections and called in certain technical people to deal with emergencies," McAteer said. "During those furlough days, our mine inspectors found several imminent danger situations where serious accidents could have occurred had not the hazard been recognized and promptly corrected."

During the November 14-19 furlough, Federal coal mine inspectors conducted special focus inspections centering on explosion prevention, McAteer said. A disastrous coal mine explosion can happen at any time if proper mine ventilation is neglected and an ignition source is present. Due to dry winter air, winter is an especially high-hazard period for mine explosions. In addition, a drop in barometric pressure preceding a winter storm can cause explosive methane gas to migrate from worked-out areas to active mine workings.

Among other incidents during the furlough period:

"During the furlough, inspectors cited other hazardous situations and continued critical activities like accident investigations," said McAteer.

"Mining is much safer today than in the past, but it remains a high-hazard industry where the work environment is constantly changing and dangers can develop rapidly. Inspections and other activities by Federal mine inspectors make a difference every day," McAteer said.

While most mine inspectors remained on the job, McAteer noted that the furlough hampered or delayed other important MSHA business such as mining plan approvals, meetings between MSHA and company officials, equipment safety tests for product certification, penalty assessments, criminal investigations, investigations of certain complaints, and safety training sessions.

"Had the furlough continued much longer, we could have seen some serious backlogs and in time, a noticeable decline in our effectiveness overall," McAteer said. "As it is, we have some catching-up to do. While inspections are fundamental, other MSHA responsibilities mesh with inspections in an overall system that protects miners' safety and health."