More than 400 Mine Safety and Health Administration workers began a 30-day, congressionally imposed furlough yesterday that could run even longer and end up costing the taxpayers a lot more money than the forced, unpaid vacations will save.

In the stopgap federal spending bill Congress approved late last year, the Labor Department was ordered not to spend any money on inspecting stone, sand and gravel mines. Those safety inspections are made by the MSHA, a Labor Department agency. It has stepped on some powerful corporate toes. Congress obviously figured this would be one place to start getting the government off peoples' backs. Many mine owners are delighted with the action. Some people who work in those mines are not so delighted.

The inspection cutoff forced Labor Department brass to take the first step of furloughing MSHA personnel. Officials hope Congress will reconsider the ban when it returns from its Christmas vacation later this month.

Unless Congress reinstates the program before the current 30-day "emergency" furloughs expire, Labor will go to another round of furloughs next month using cumbersome RIF (reduction in force) procedures. Although the procedures are designed to protect senior workers and veterans, the ripple effects of RIFs can be costly and cumbersome, producing some downright silly results.

If, for example, MSHA must take a second round of furloughs, RIF rules will require that senior inspectors be allowed to "bump" less senior personnel, even those doing different jobs in different geographic areas. Bumped workers could be furloughed or fired.

Furloughs following RIF rules would let senior gravel-stone mine inspectors "bump" into jobs being done by people with less seniority who inspect other kinds of mines. Senior inspectors would be able to move to different cities -- with government-paid travel and living expenses -- to take the jobs of other inspectors in other kinds of mines. The people they replaced would be put on furlough.