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Following the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pension’s quick approval of bipartisan mining safety legislation introduced last week in Congress titled “Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006,” the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) applauded the Committee and urged continued Congressional cooperation and quick action on the bill. ASSE urges quick action so that miners can know they will have protections from the kinds of safety risks and mine rescue limitations brought to light in the Sago and Alma coal field tragedies and now made even more urgent with the loss of five miners at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Harland County, Kentucky.

“Chairman Michael B. Enzi, ranking member Edward M. Kennedy, and the entire Committee need to be commended for the bipartisan approach it has forged to allow Congress to move rapidly on mine safety and rescue issues that must be addressed,” ASSE President-elect Donald S. Jones, Sr., CSP, P.E., said today. “We hope this effort can also signal a new era in finding cooperative solutions to the many occupational safety and health issues now before Congress.”

The sweeping reform legislation, labeled the MINER Act, was introduced May 17 by both Senator Enzi (R-WY), Chairman, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), Ranking Member of the HELP Committee, and is cosponsored by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).

“The commendable work of the committee demonstrates sensitivity to the wide range of risks associated with the varied mining industries while addressing concerns rising from the recent tragedies. The reforms to the mine rescue program and the improvements to site specific response plans are in line with what the Task Force on Emergency Response Technology of ASSE’s Mine Practice Specialty believe is necessary,” Jones said. “Likewise, giving liability protection to rescue teams, increasing rescue team training and ensuring team familiarity with each mine, supporting scholarships for more miner education, and requiring standards for sealed mines will help save lives. These changes will have a profound impact on the country’s ability to respond to mine emergencies.

“The Committee’s foresight in addressing the long-standing bureaucratic limitations the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) faces within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is also commendable. Separating NIOSH from the CDC and establishing it as a sub-agency reporting directly to the Secretary of Health and Human Services is the right thing to do, not only to improve NIOSH’s ability to address mine safety and technology issues but to carry out its singular responsibility to lead this nation’s research and education in safety and health. The added abilities that the Committee intends to give NIOSH in furthering mine safety technology will encourage and speed up the development of safety technology and, again, save miner lives,” said Jones.

NIOSH is the only federal resource for occupational safety and health research and support for safety and health education and training. Its ongoing plan to address mining safety includes research to reduce respiratory diseases in miners by reducing health hazards in the workplace associated with coal worker pneumoconiosis, silicosis, and diesel emissions; reduce noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) in the mining industry; reduce repetitive/cumulative musculoskeletal injuries in mine workers; reducing traumatic injuries in the mining workplace; reduce the risk of mine disasters (fires, explosions, and inundations); minimize the risk to, and enhance the safety and effectiveness of, emergency responders; reduce ground failure fatalities and injuries in the mining industry; and determine the impact of changing mining conditions, new and emerging technologies, training, and the changing patterns of work on worker health and safety.

Included in the MINER Act are provisions that would require each covered mine to develop and continuously update a written emergency response plan; promote use of equipment and technology that is currently commercially available; require emergency response plans to be continuously reviewed and updated and re-certified by MSHA every six months; direct the Secretary of Labor to require wireless two-way communications and an electronic tracking system permitting those on the surface to locate persons trapped underground; require each mine to make available two experienced rescue teams capable of a one hour response time; establish a competitive grant program for new mine safety technology to be administered by NIOSH; establish an interagency working group to provide a formal means of sharing non-classified technology that would have applicability to mine safety; raise the criminal penalty cap to $250,000 for first offenses and $500,000 for second offenses, as well as raising the maximum civil penalty for flagrant violations to $220,000; and, much more.

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