CHARLESTON (AP) - The Mine Safety and Health Administration should improve its data on mine operators' underreporting of work-related injuries and illnesses so that it can better target enforcement to address the problem, a federal audit said.
MSHA has taken steps to detect and deter underreporting, including revising its auditing process and training programs, and enhancing penalties for violations. However, more can be done, according to the audit conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General.
Federal regulations require mine operators to report work-related injuries and illnesses. The audit said most citations for violations result in an average $100 penalty.
"Notwithstanding its ongoing detection and deterrence activities, MSHA did not have the knowledge of the occurrence of underreporting at the level of granularity needed to detect and deter underreporting across the mining industry," stated the audit, which was released Tuesday.
The insufficient data was due in part to the lack of studies of underreporting. Difficulty in obtaining data complicated the problem, the audit said.
"In the past, mine operators sometimes refused MSHA access to employee medical and personnel records that related to accidents, injuries and illnesses. Without these records, MSHA faced increased challenges in detecting underreporting," the report stated.
As a consequence, MSHA had only a rough estimate of underreporting and no information on which mines were the most likely to underreport and which types of injuries were the most likely to be underreported.
A 2013 ruling by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said MSHA may require mine operators to produce employee medical and personnel records to verify compliance with reporting requirements. While the ruling is only binding in the 7th Circuit, the audit said the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission had ruled in MSHA's favor in the case.
"Mine operators benefit from having low rates of reported injuries/illnesses. High rates of injury or illness can increase workers' compensation expenses and may single out mines for increased enforcement by MSHA," the audit stated. "The challenge facing MSHA is to ensure that lowered rates of reported injuries/illnesses result from improved safety practices rather than underreporting."
In its response, MSHA said it believes the only want to obtain a relatively reliable estimate of underreporting is to conduct audits across all sectors of the mining industry. The agency said it is concerned that this type of approach would not be feasible because it would be too resource-intensive.
The agency said it would consider sponsoring or participating in additional studies of underreporting.
Some mine operators have implemented programs, policies and practices aimed at encouraging miners to be more aware of safety. But the audit said some programs could potentially discourage miners from reporting accidents or illnesses because they include disciplinary measures.
The audit said MSHA should make developing policy guidance for mine operators on the matter a priority.