WASHINGTON (NBC) -- President Donald Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to bolster America's mining industry, rolling back environmental regulations, appointing mining executives to high-ranking jobs and funneling more money to struggling coal plants.
"We’re going to fight for you like I promised I would in the campaign," the president told a group of miners in February, assuring them that his agenda would bring back coal jobs. "And you were very good to me, and I’m going to be even better to you, I promise you that."
But the Trump administration is also taking steps to delay, modify and roll back Obama-era safety measures intended to protect mine workers. It's delaying a rule requiring that certain mine operators conduct safety inspections before workers begin their shift. It wants to drop a provision that these operators have to document workplace hazards, so long as they're corrected quickly. And miners' representatives worry they're being shunted aside during certain agency visits.
Industry groups have applauded the recent moves, claiming the policies currently being targeted are onerous and unnecessary. But worker-safety advocates and labor unions fear that the moves could put miners at even greater risk of injury and death in what is already one of America's most hazardous lines of work.
While coal miners are the public face of the industry, most American miners work for operators who extract iron ore, stone, gravel, copper and other substances. Just days before leaving office in January, President Barack Obama finalized a new regulation that requires these mines — commonly referred to as "metal and nonmetal" operations — to inspect the workplace for hazards before miners begin their shifts; promptly notify miners about any adverse conditions; and provide detailed documentation of the conditions and the actions taken to correct them.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) — Trump's nominee to head the agency is set for a confirmation vote in the Senate on Wednesday — has repeatedly delayed Obama's worksite inspection rule from taking effect, announcing in October that it would push the start date to next June. The agency also proposed significant changes to the rule that would allow mining operators to conduct safety inspections"as miners begin their work" — leaving it up to the company to decide the timing, rather than requiring that the inspections take place before a shift begins.
Labor unions and other worker advocates have decried the moves and say the administration's proposed changes defeat the rule's basic purpose. "You ought to know about hazards before the shift starts — not three hours later," said Mike Wright, director of health and safety for the United Steelworkers.
In July, a miner in Georgia was crushed to death by a nine-ton piece of granite that he was trying to break loose, according to a preliminary accident report. After the fatality, MSHA advised mine operators to "always conduct examinations of work place to identify loose ground or unstable conditions before work begins, or as changing ground conditions warrant." Currently, MSHA requires operators to conduct workplace safety inspections at least once during a shift, but they don't have to be completed within any specific time frame.
The Trump administration is also trying to eliminate the requirement that operators document hazardous workplace conditions during inspections, as long as they're corrected promptly. Wright believes that would make it more difficult to see if there's a pattern of dangerous conditions in the mine, or to determine if operators failed to do enough to correct hazards they knew about.
The Labor Department established MSHA in 1978 after two explosions killed 26 coal miners in Kentucky, prompting Congress to pass legislation to strengthen oversight of miners' health and safety. The agency now has a staff of about 2,000 and a 2017 budget of $375 million.
Federal law has long required all underground coal mines to conduct pre-shift inspections, and supporters of the Obama-era rule believe that similar rules should apply to metal and non-metal mines, too. Analyzing the deaths of 122 metal and nonmetal miners from 2010 to 2015, the Obama administration found that 18 miners were killed in accidents where operators were cited for “unwarrantable failure" to comply with federal law.
Had operators kept more detailed records of worksite hazards — as is required under the Obama rule — they might have addressed them more promptly, potentially preventing the fatal accidents from happening in the first place, Obama's Labor Department concluded.