A conversation with Mike Davis of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration

By Ed O'Keefe
Thursday, April 8, 2010; B03

Mike Davis, deputy assistant secretary of operations for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, joined the agency in 1989 as a mine safety inspector. He's a fourth-generation miner and second-generation MSHA employee.

Q Why does someone become a mine safety inspector?

People that have a passion for that kind of work sometimes see MSHA as the next step up. They've got a passion for health and safety and mining, and they would like to pursue it further.

What qualifies someone to be a mine safety inspector?

We're looking for a well-rounded person that has background in the operations. Someone who's operated the equipment, that's been in the process of mining coal. It's good that we have people that have managed the workforce, but it's just more critical that we have people who've been engaged in the mining process.

Why must you have at least five years of experience in order to get hired as an inspector?

They have to be well rounded enough that if they know what the rules are, they know what the law is, they're trained to observe, to seek out these hazards. It's easier for someone to identify it if they've done it, someone that's mined the material, that's processed material, that's transported and knows the entire system.

So the mining community -- the companies, the workers, the federal inspectors -- are a tight-knit community?

Yes, very. People who enter into that business, it becomes a passion, a lifestyle. You're going to find that your inspectors typically come from a mining background. . . . You get a passion for working with these people and for staying in this environment. They're very down to earth people, they're hard to leave.

Tell me about the actual inspection of an underground mine.

[Inspectors] are going to have a lot of preparation upfront. Before they begin an inspection, they go back through the plans that have been approved, the roof control and ventilation, emergency response. They have to go through all these plans and make themselves very familiar.

We rotate these mines so that every year inspectors don't get the same mines as the year before. . . . If it's underground, you have to visit a minimum of four times a year. If it's a surface mine, it's two times a year.

So then what happens when you head underground?

When they first go underground they'll go to the working sections and make an imminent danger run, where they go across all the work areas and equipment and ensure there isn't an imminent danger condition. They may either stay on the section after that or they may hit other areas, such as belt lines, belt transfer points, seal areas, pump areas. . . .

The types of things that they're looking for is compliance to [MSHA Title 30 CFR]. Those are mandatory health and safety standards for the industry. What they're compelled to do is if they observe a violation of a mandatory standard, they're to issue with reasonable promptness and effectively start the work of remedying that condition.

What do you carry with you into the mine?

Most inspectors don't carry a check off list, per se, unless they have some items that they may want to bring to remind themselves. They've already got a set course of business for the day. They will take gas detectors, safety glasses, things that they're obligated to carry for the course of their work, like an anemometer.

What's the scariest or most frustrating part of the job?

I always thought when I was an inspector that the toughest part was to leave that property with 100 percent assurance that I had made the best, most thorough inspection that I could have done. I never wanted to leave that property -- especially if something had happened shortly after I left that I could have prevented. That's a very overriding concern that I think a lot of good inspectors carry with them.

So [inspectors] live with that fear?

Every day.

What's the biggest misconception of the mining community?

I think the biggest misconception is that they can't do anything else. . . . Mining, people mine because that is the career that they have chosen. That's what they want to do more than anything else. There's a misconception for MSHA that we're citation writers. Our inspectors work for miners. They worked for the mining community. MSHA works for the mining community.

And I guess another thing that sometimes pops up, is that MSHA's work won't be independent, that we won't actually get outside the box. Well, that's not true. We are independent.

Do you think MSHA did everything it could to avoid this explosion?

As far as what recently happened, I really can't comment to that, but MSHA's mission is to . . . do its part to ensure what happened doesn't happen.

Explosions are preventable. It is an obligation for that mine operator to ensure that he provides a healthy and a safe workplace for his employees. MSHA has oversight, but we don't have 24-7 onsite time.

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