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Tales from DC: MSHA Stakeholders Meeting on Noise and Fall Protection

Posted in on Thu, May 31, 2012

April12, from Adele Abrams, Esq., ASSE Federal Representative –

Today I represented ASSE at a special stakeholders briefing at MSHA headquarters on two new initiatives that will be launched soon, one concerning “best practices” (and enforcement) of the MSHA Noise standard (30 CFR Part 62) and the other concerning a new policy document that will be released clarifying the fall protection standard (30 CFR 56/57.15005). There were no documents distributed; however, a powerpoint on the noise standard will soon be made available on the MSHA website as it is also being used to train inspectors.

Before getting into the main part of the meeting, Assistant Secretary of Labor Joe Main addressed the approximately 30 people in attendance, discussing MSHA’s “strategic goal” to address problems that have become visible due to the UBB tragedy. These include issuing policies to reflect the current law criminalizing advance notice of inspections, emphasizing miners’ rights, enforcement of ventilation and rock dusting in coal mines, and more enhanced enforcement activities (impact inspections, changed criteria for Pattern of Violations, and reorganization of the assessments/investigative office). The rest of the program was addressed to metal/nonmetal mine operators although the noise standard does affect all mining segments. 

The changes in interpretation of the fall protection standard comes in response to suggestions made by various mining organizations, MSHA will soon issue a Program Policy Letter (PPL) revising 56.15005, that – for work on stationary work platforms – will obviate a worker in most situations from needing fall protection if working fewer than six feet above a working surface.  The standard itself simply states that “safety belts and lines shall be worn where there is a danger of falling” and some inspectors have been issuing citations at heights of les than 5 feet or even as little as 30 inches above the ground, where fall protection devices cannot be effectively utilized.

The draft PPL states that each employee working more than six feet over a horizontal or vertical surface will require such protection as a guard rail, or safety net, or personal fall arrest system. However, MSHA Metal/Nonmetal Administrator Neal Merrifield clarified that, in the event the worker is over such hazards as rebar, or hazardous chemicals, etc., fall protection will be needed even if the worker is working less than six feet over the surface.   MSHA’s spokeman was uncertain how the new policy would affect the many citations currently in litigation where operators were cited for not employing fall protection at heights below six feet.

Reginald Richard, CIH, MSHA’s chief of health, addressed the Noise standard and emphasized that there was no policy change, but later acknowledged that the MSHA Program Policy Manual was being revised to eliminate the availability of written “P-Codes” (a tool the agency previously used to document that a mine operator had utilized all feasible engineering and administrative controls and still could not bring noise levels below the permissible exposure limit, so that they would not subsequently be cited as long as the approved controls were still in use). No new P-codes will be issued in writing, although internal MSHA coding will reflect this and subsequent inspectors “should” take note of these and not continue to cite the operator.

MSHA has initiated an emphasis program doing comprehensive noise inspections at mines, to help companies understand best practices and the requirements of the standard. Like OSHA, MSHA has an action level of 85 dBA and a PEL of 90 dBA, and it also requires dual hearing protection above 105 dBA and does not allow any exposures above 115 dBA. All miners exposed above the action level must be enrolled in a hearing conservation program and be offered annual audiometric testing. Richard reviewed the requirements of various sections of the standard and said training of inspectors to prepare for the emphasis program begins next Wednesday. He also noted that MSHA is upgrading its equipment for sampling but that, due to budget constraints, it was unlikely that field offices would continue to loan sampling noise dosimeters to mine operators as they had in the past.

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