MSHA: Test coal miners for drugs and alcohol
The White House administration will propose a rule early next week to require drug testing of miners who work in "safety sensitive" jobs in the nation's coal and non-coal mines.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration ( MSHA ) officials are pushing for speedy approval of the rule, offering the mining community and the public a tight 30-day comment period - less than half the time provided for two other rules proposed by MSHA this year.
"An alcohol- and drug-free mine program as proposed in this rule will contribute to the prevention of such incidents and provide all miners, regardless of what state they work in and the size of the mine they work for, equal safety protection from working alongside miners under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs on the job,"MSHA said in a proposal scheduled to be published in Monday's Federal Register.
The proposed rule would replace existing standards for drugs and alcohol at metal and non-metal mines with an industry-wide rule that also covers coal operations.
It would designate certain substances - alcohol and a list of controlled substances - that could not be possessed on mine property or used while performing safety-sensitive job duties, unless they were being used according to a valid prescription.
Mine operators would be required to establish an alcohol- and drug-free program, including a written policy, employee education, supervisory training and drug testing for miners in safety-sensitive jobs and their supervisors. Safety-sensitive job duties are defined as "any type of work activity where a momentary lapse of critical concentration could result in an accident, injury or death."
Company policies also must include treatment referrals for miners who violate the policy. The proposed rule also would require those who violate the prohibitions to be removed from the performance of job-sensitive duties until they complete recommended treatment and their alcohol- and drug-free status is confirmed by testing.
"Mining under the best of circumstances can be dangerous," said MSHA chief Richard Stickler, "and the use of alcohol and illegal substances creates additional, unnecessary hazards in the workplace."
MSHA's Federal Register notice did not include any mention of a public hearing on the proposal.
Department of Labor spokesman David James said the agency anticipates receiving a request for a hearing and that MSHA "is preparing to do" such a hearing.
"There will likely be a notice for public hearing published sometime during the public comment period," James said.
Coal industry officials have long sought an MSHA rule to require drug testing of miners, but the United Mine Workers union has questioned the need for such testing and worried about the specifics of how companies would carry out such testing.
Kentucky adopted its own drug-testing program for miners in 2006, and Virginia passed similar rules in 2007. West Virginia has declined to adopt drug-testing requirements for coal miners.
In October 2005, MSHA announced that it was working on such a rule, but after a string of mine disasters in 2006 and 2007, the drug-testing proposal appeared to have been put on the back burner as the agency scrambled to enact numerous safety reforms mandated by Congress.
Then, in early June, MSHA officials submitted their proposed rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget for its review. The OMB approved the proposal late last week, records show.
In its proposed rule notice, MSHA said
"a preliminary review of fatal and non-fatal mine accident records revealed a number of instances in which alcohol and drugs or drug paraphernalia were found or reported, or where the post-accident toxicology screen revealed the presence of alcohol or drugs."
MSHA cited a study that showed
more than 13 percent of full-time miners were heavy alcohol users and 7 percent admitted that they had used illicit drugs within the past month.
"Using alcohol and/or drugs can affect a miner's coordination and judgment significantly at a time when he or she needs to be alert, aware and capable of performing tasks where there is a substantial risk of injury to oneself or others," the MSHA notice said.
"Even prescription medications may affect a miner's perception and reaction time. Mining is a complicated and hazardous occupation, and a clear focus on the work at hand is a crucial component of mine safety."
During a previous comment period, UMW officials questioned whether MSHA had shown the need for a nationwide drug-testing program.
MSHA responded, "Although a subsequent internal [Department of Labor] review of accident reports failed to reveal a significant number of cases where alcohol or drugs were determined to be causative factors, it did reveal a lack of consistency in whether and how alcohol and drug tests are performed and in the investigative process used to determine whether alcohol or drugs may have been factors.
"In fact, currently accident investigations do not routinely include an inquiry into the use of alcohol or drugs and this is a failure that the proposed rule intends to address," MSHA said.
MSHA estimated that the drug-testing rule would cost the mining industry $16 million during its first year and $13 million every year after that.