The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is not the only federal agency that's been trying to shake its "policeman" image. Mine Safety and Health Administration Chief Ford B. Ford has taken a similar tack, emphasizing "cooperation" with mine owners rather than "confrontation," and starting several new agency policies.
Ford began by telling field managers he didn't want citations issued for "nit-picking" violations. He later changed the criteria for levying fines, began regularly dispatching inspectors to give mine owners safety tips and launched a review of safety standards for underground coal mines with an eye to simplifying them.
"We at MSHA have taken important steps towards making cooperation more than a catchword," Ford said recently, sounding a lot like OSHA Chief Thorne G. Auchter.
Not everyone is pleased. United Mine Workers of America President Richard L. Trumka contends that Ford's policies are endangering the nation's 500,000 miners.
Before Ford took over, all violations but the technical ones were designated "significant and substantial," which meant the mine owner usually was assessed a substantial fine.
Ford narrowed the criteria for significant violations and established a flat $20 fine for all other transgressions. As a result, the number of "significant and substantial" violations dropped from 101,593 in 1980 to 23,126 last year.
Trumka says inspectors now are reluctant to issue these citations, even for "extremely hazardous violations." For instance, concentrations of methane gas greater than 1 percent have long been considered dangerous because of the potential for explosions. But an inspector recently found methane concentrations of 4.5 percent in a mine and only fined the owner $20, according to MSHA records. Before Ford's tenure, the UMW says, miners probably would have been evacuated immediately. LOWER DEATH RATE . . . The number of fatalities in coal mine accidents dropped last year to 122, down from 153 in 1981 and 133 in 1980. And for the first quarter of this year, 10 miners died in coal mine accidents, compared with 43 during the same period last year.
Ford said the lower rate was due, in part, to "greater cooperation" within the mining community, but the UMW said the drop was caused by hard economic times in the coal industry. This, it said, has led to more layoffs among less-experienced miners and the closing of smaller mines, where more accidents occur. FOAM-FILLED ROCKS . . . Sometimes solving one safety problem creates another. Miners have discovered they can reduce the threat of underground mine cave-ins if they inject a polyurethane foam into the mine's ceiling. The foam fills cracks in the rock and bonds the pieces together. Since 1978, the process has been used successfully in more than 40 mines in this country.
Because the foam contains methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI), which is known to irritate eyes and mucous membranes and cause respiratory problems such as wheezing and shortness of breath, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is investigating. But so far, NIOSH says, the foam appears to be safe if installed correctly. BOUND FOR GREATER GLORY? . . . Ford is expected to be promoted soon to undersecretary of labor, a post that has been vacant since Malcolm Lovell left. Among the persons mentioned as a possible replacement at MSHA is Ralph Hatch, a vice president of Consolidation Coal.