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    Questions and Answers on the Sago Mine Accident

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Question:  Why were there so many health and safety violations issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) against Sago Mine last year?

 

Answer:  Mining operations at the Sago Mine more than doubled between 2004 and 2005, prompting MSHA to dramatically increase – by 84% – its on-site inspection and enforcement presence.  As a result, MSHA also took significantly more enforcement actions – 208 in total – against Sago Mine in 2005, requiring the operator to quickly correct health and safety violations in accordance with federal Mine Act standards.  MSHA’s aggressive inspection and enforcement record at Sago Mine exemplifies the agency’s record-setting commitment to strong enforcement over the past five years.

 

 

Question:  Doesn’t the high number of citations against Sago Mine last year indicate that the operation was simply unsafe, an accident waiting to happen?

 

Answer:  Of the 208 citations, orders and safeguards issued in 2005, none involved an immediate risk of injury.  Less than half of the citations against Sago Mine in 2005 were for “significant and substantial” violations – and all but three have been corrected by the operator.  The three remaining issues, which relate to roof control, were being addressed by the operator in compliance with the abatement provisions of the Mine Act.

 

 

Question:  Should MSHA have shut down the Sago Mine in light of the health and safety violations it identified?

 

Answer:  MSHA has the authority to suspend mining activity by issuing “withdrawal orders.”  MSHA aggressively exercised its suspension authority against Sago Mine in 2005, issuing 18 separate “withdrawal orders” that shut down mining activity in specific areas of the mine until health and safety problems were corrected by the operator.  All of the safety issues that caused the withdrawal orders were corrected.  It would be unusual for MSHA to shut down an entire mine unless there were mine-wide hazards that the mine operator did not remedy within the abatement requirements of the Mine Act.

 

 

Question:  Could any of the health and safety violations cited by MSHA have caused the explosion?

 

Answer:  Until MSHA completes its investigation of the accident and determines the likely causes of the explosion, it is impossible to speculate on what the causes might have been.  At the same time, none of the health and safety violations cited by MSHA at Sago Mine last year involved an immediate risk of injury.  At MSHA’s direction, the operator has worked to correct all health and safety problems in accordance with the requirements of the Mine Act.

 

 

Question:  Does the Sago Mine disaster indicate that MSHA has grown “too soft” on mine operators and has not been aggressive enough in enforcing the Mine Act?

 

Answer:  MSHA’s actions at Sago Mine demonstrate the opposite:  the agency rapidly expanded its inspection and enforcement presence at the site – by 84% between 2004 and 2005 – in response to increasing employment and production activity at the mine.  Last year, MSHA more than tripled the number of citations, orders and safeguards issued against the company and insisted that the operator quickly remedy all safety and health violations in full compliance with the Mine Act.

 

MSHA’s aggressive actions at Sago Mine reflect MSHA’s overall record of increased enforcement against mine operators during this Administration.  Specifically, from FY 2000 to FY 2005:

 

ü     Total Citations and Orders issued by MSHA at all mines increased by 4% (119,334 to 124,467)

 

ü     Total Citations and Orders issued at coal mines increased by 18% (56,983 to 67,300)

 

ü     Total “Significant and Substantial” Citations and Orders issued at coal mines increased by 13% (23,774 to 26,779)

 

While MSHA has also pursued cooperative health and safety partnerships with labor unions, mine operators and industry associations, it has consistently backed up those compliance assistance efforts with strong enforcement against unsafe operators.  And for the past several years, the President’s Budget for the U.S. Department of Labor has requested that Congress more than triple the current statutory penalties that MSHA can impose on companies for egregious mine safety violations.

 

 

Question:  What level of enforcement activity did MSHA perform at the Sago Mine last year?

 

Answer:  MSHA personnel spent 744 on-site inspection hours at Sago Mine during calendar year 2005.  This represents an 84% increase from the 405 on-site inspection hours spent at the mine during calendar year 2004.  The increased level of oversight led to the issuance of 208 Citations, Orders and Safeguards at the Sago Mine in 2005.

 

 

Question:  MSHA issued 49 citations against Sago Mine in December.  Is this an unusually high number, and does it indicate that the mine was becoming increasingly unsafe?

 

Answer:  The 49 citations and orders that MSHA issued in the fourth quarter were not for December alone, but represented all health and safety issues identified during the fourth-quarter inspection, as stipulated by the Mine Act.  Of these 49 violations, 18 were considered to be “significant and substantial.”  Fifteen of these were corrected by the mine operator; and the remaining three, which relate to roof control, were being addressed by the operator in compliance with the abatement provisions of the Mine Act.

 

 

Question:  What kinds of violations were uncovered in the fourth quarter 2005 inspection?

 

Answer:  MSHA cited the operator for a variety of health and safety issues, including the suitability of cable fittings, warning devices on mobile equipment, location of first aid equipment, location of fire fighting equipment, roof bolting, insulation of power wires and cables, and roof control plans, among others.  All of these issues have been addressed under the provisions of the Mine Act.   

 

 

Question:  How large were the fines levied against the Sago Mine in 2005?

 

Answer:  Thus far, the Sago Mine has been assessed $24,155 for penalties cited in 2005.  Nine violations are currently under appeal and have not yet been assessed, although the conditions cited in those violations have been corrected. 

 

 

Question:  How many fatalities have there been at the Sago Mine in the past?

 

Answer:  In the decade between 1995 and 2005, there were no fatalities at the Sago Mine. 

 

 

Question:  How many people did MSHA have on the site of the rescue effort?

 

Answer:  Approximately 25 MSHA mine safety professionals were on scene at any given time.

 

 

Question:  What is MSHA’s next step?

 

Answer:  The Department of Labor is appointing an independent MSHA investigative team that will perform a thorough investigation including an assessment of why the explosion occurred, whether or not the mine operator failed to take any steps that would have prevented the accident, and how the rescue efforts unfolded – including the handling of emergency information relating to the miners’ condition.  The team will be headed up by a senior MSHA safety professional who has not been part of the initial inspection and enforcement efforts. 

 




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