The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is being faulted in a new government report for doing a shoddy job keeping its inspectors trained.
Veteran inspectors often aren't taking mandatory continuing education courses, among other things, U.S. Department of Labor auditors concluded in the report. And at least once, MSHA sent a new hire who hadn't completed mandatory training.
The agency was in the midst of a hiring blitz during the time of fiscal years 2006-2008 covered by the report. MSHA expanded its inspector ranks by 26 percent to more than 1,000 and trained 350 newcomers. But the Labor Department determined that veteran inspectors weren't kept current. MSHA is part of the Department of Labor.
"Fifty-six percent of the 102 journeyman inspectors we sampled had not completed MSHA's required periodic retraining during," the Labor Department said. "Three of these journeyman inspectors had not received retraining since the inspection of MSHA's training policy in 1998."
New MSHA director Joe Main, who took over in 2009, calls the report valuable in his response to the Labor Department.
"We have a long history of providing continual learning opportunities for our employees," Main wrote. "However, as you have pointed, out, MSHA's internal controls for ensuring our inspectors receive training can be improved."
An MSHA spokeswoman declined further comment.
Main largely agreed with the report's recommendations. He said the agency is putting controls in place and revising its policy to suspend inspectors who don't complete continuing education, among other things. The agency also is beefing up controls over training records and putting down in writing the policies, procedures and documentation for waiving training requirements.
According to the report, MSHA's problems got worse with inspectors during the 2008-09 training cycle, with 65 percent reaching the end of fiscal 2009 without completing the required training.
Inspectors are supposed to attend classes a week of training annually or two weeks every two years. Rookies take 21 or 23 weeks depending on whether they are going to inspect coal mines or non-coal operations.
MSHA has credited its hiring blitz as one factor in cutting mining deaths to 34 last year, the fewest since officials began keeping records nearly a century ago. The legion of new inspectors also has caused the backlog of mine citations working their way through the government's adjudication system to jump from roughly 2,700 in 2006 to about 16,000 this year.
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